WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate stood poised Thursday to approve historic immigration legislation opening the door to U.S. citizenship to millions and promising a dramatic build-up of manpower and technology along the U.S.-Mexico border.
The vote on final passage of the White House-backed bill was expected as early as Thursday afternoon, after a series of test votes so far this week demonstrated supporters command a bipartisan majority well over the 60 votes needed to secure passage and send the bill to the House. First must come two more procedural tests set for Thursday morning.
"It's landmark legislation that will secure our borders and help 11 million people get right with the law," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said on the Senate floor Thursday ahead of the votes.
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., countered that the bill doesn't ensure true border security since people here illegally can obtain a provisional legal status under the legislation before any security goals are accomplished. "This bill may pass the Senate today, but not with my vote. And in its current form, it won't become law," McConnell said.
Supporters posted 67 votes or more on each of three procedural tests Wednesday. More than a dozen Republicans sided with Democrats on each, ensuring bipartisan support that the bill's backers hope will change minds in the House.
The outlook there is uncertain. Many House conservatives oppose the pathway to citizenship at the center of the Senate bill. And many prefer a piecemeal approach rather than a sweeping bill like the one the Senate is producing.
The House Judiciary Committee is in the midst of a piece-by-piece effort, turning its attention Thursday to a bill on high-skilled workers.
On Wednesday the committee signed off on legislation establishing a system to require all employers to check their workers' legal status on a faster timeframe than the Senate bill contemplates. And last week it approved two other measures, one establishing a new agricultural guest worker program and a second making illegal presence in the country a federal crime, instead of a civil offense as it is now.
None of the bills weighed by the Judiciary Committee contemplate a path to citizenship or even legalization for the millions already here.
At its core, the legislation in the Senate includes numerous steps to prevent future illegal immigration, while at the same time it offers a chance at citizenship to the 11 million immigrants now living in the country unlawfully.
It provides for 20,000 new Border Patrol agents, requires the completion of 700 miles of fencing and requires an array of high-tech devices to be deployed to secure the border with Mexico. Those security changes would be accomplished over a decade and would have to be in place before anyone in provisional legal status could obtain a permanent resident green card.
Businesses would be required to check on the legal status of prospective employees. Other provisions would expand the number of visas for highly skilled workers relied upon by the technology industry. A separate program would be established for lower-skilled workers, and farm workers would be admitted under a temporary program.
The basic legislation was drafted by four Democrats and four Republicans who met privately for months to produce a rare bipartisan compromise in a polarized Senate. They fended off unwanted changes in the Senate Judiciary Committee and then were involved in negotiations with Republican Sens. John Hoeven of North Dakota and Bob Corker of Tennessee on a package of tougher border security provisions that swelled support among Republicans.