Bipartisan Immigration Law Revision Passed by U.S. Senate

Finding a way to duplicate the Senate’s bipartisan passage of a revision to U.S. immigration policy will be a tall order in the Republican-led House, though senators of both parties plan to keep up the pressure.

The Senate passed the most significant immigration measure in a generation yesterday with the support of 14 Republicans and all 54 of the chamber’s Democrats after months of painstaking bipartisan negotiations. A group of four Republican and four Democratic senators worked to build a broad coalition of support from the start.

Arizona Senator John McCain, a Republican author of the bill, said he and other supporters plan to work with businesses, religious groups and other influential proponents to persuade the House to take up comprehensive legislation.

“It’s going to require that kind of intervention by these different parts of the coalition that fully supported this legislation,” McCain, who led a failed 2007 immigration overhaul effort, told reporters after the vote.

The Senate’s proposal, particularly a citizenship path for 11 million undocumented U.S. immigrants, is opposed in the House. Many Republicans prefer a piecemeal approach requiring proof that border-security measures are working before lawmakers would consider any form of legal status for undocumented immigrants.

Inherent differences between the two chambers also could influence the House’s approach. Unlike the Senate, where majority Democrats need the support of at least six Republicans to overcome a filibuster, House Republicans have the necessary margin of control to pass bills without any Democratic support.

Speaker Boehner

House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, has pledged to keep any proposal that isn’t backed by a majority of his caucus from reaching the floor, though he’s acknowledged an immigration bill will need substantial Democratic support.

“None of our colleagues on the other side of the Capitol like to be talked down to or given tutorials,” McCain said. “They have their own views, and we respect them, and we need to have a respectful dialogue. But also we need to galvanize the broad base of support that’s supporting this legislation to be very, very active in this debate.”

Florida Senator Marco Rubio, a co-author of the bill, has become an informal emissary to fellow Republicans in the House on immigration. Earlier this month, Rubio pledged to withdraw support for the Senate bill unless its border security elements were strengthened, a move he said was necessary to make the legislation more palatable to Republicans.

‘Political Suicide’

Nathan Gonzales, political editor for the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report in Washington, said political pressures on Republicans will inadvertently lead to a different product in that chamber than what the Senate produced.

Even if some Republican House members are open to a comprehensive rewrite of immigration law, “they feel like it’s political suicide,” Gonzales said, adding that some worry about being challenged in Republican primaries next year.

Underscoring the challenges in the House, Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte said in a statement issued minutes after the Senate vote that he had “concerns” about the measure.

“The bill repeats many of the same mistakes made in the 1986 immigration law,” said the Virginia Republican. It doesn’t “adequately address the interior enforcement of our immigration laws and allows the executive branch to waive many, if not most, of the bill’s requirements.”

Smaller Pieces

Boehner has turned to Goodlatte to set the pace for the House’s efforts. Goodlatte prefers dividing immigration legislation into smaller pieces. So far, the Judiciary panel has approved measures setting up a new farm guest worker program, strengthening enforcement of immigration laws, expanding an electronic employment-verification program and increasing the pool of high-skilled foreign workers.

The Senate bill, S. 744, passed 68-32. In addition to creating a path to citizenship, it would direct $46.3 billion toward securing the frontier with Mexico -- the costliest border-security plan ever for the U.S. -- added to gain Republican support.

“This legislation will be good for America’s national security as well as its economic security,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat. “It makes unprecedented investments in border security, it cracks down on crooked employers who exploit and abuse immigrant workers, and it reforms our legal immigration system.”

President Barack Obama said in a statement after the vote, “Today, the Senate did its job. It’s now up to the House to do the same.”

Ronald Reagan

Vice President Joe Biden presided over the Senate vote. After he announced the vote total, chants of “yes we can!” erupted in the visitors’ gallery.

U.S. immigration law hasn’t been substantially revamped since 1986, when President Ronald Reagan signed a law that made 3 million undocumented workers eligible for legal status. That measure created a market for fraudulent documentation, and illegal immigration soared, discouraging later efforts to legalize undocumented immigrants.

The 2007 immigration plan that died in the Senate wasn’t considered in the House. The prospects for passage of a bipartisan bill are greater this time because some Republicans see the issue as a way to boost the party’s appeal with Hispanic voters, 71 percent of whom supported Obama in November’s presidential election.

‘Practical Solution’

The measure’s final passage “gets it out of the Senate with the wind at its back,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican co-sponsoring the bill. “Amnesty was the word of the day in 2006 and 2007. Now there’s been a sea change. Legal status for the 11 million is seen as a practical solution.”

Earlier this week, senators amended the bill to strengthen its border-security provisions. The measure would double the U.S. Border Patrol’s size by adding 20,000 agents, require 700 miles of fencing at the Mexico border, and add unmanned aerial drones to help police the border.

All employers would have to check workers’ legal status with an e-verify system, and a visa entry and exit system would be required at all airports and seaports. Those provisions would have to be in place before any undocumented immigrant could gain permanent legal status, known as a green card.

Most Senate Republicans, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, voted against the bill. McConnell, who is seeking re-election in 2014, said yesterday he isn’t convinced the measure would secure the U.S. border and deter future illegal immigration. His refusal to support the bill may encourage some Republicans to oppose it in the House.

McConnell Stance

“I had wanted very much to support a reform to our immigration law,” McConnell said on the Senate floor. “So it’s with a great deal of regret, for me at least, that the final bill didn’t turn out to be something that I could support.”

While the bill’s border-security elements consumed the most time in floor debate, the almost thousand-page legislation also would revamp U.S. visa programs. It would create a program for low-skilled, non-farm workers through an agreement between the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation’s biggest business lobbying group, and the AFL-CIO, the largest labor federation.

“This bill includes input from almost every member of this body,” said Senator Charles Schumer of New York, the chamber’s third-ranking Democrat and an author of the bill. “That’s what makes this bill strong.”

Schumer said the measure drew backing from a range of groups including farmers, technology companies and immigrant-rights organizations.

Vote Breakdown

The Senate bill, unveiled in April, was drafted after months of talks between four Republican and four Democratic senators. The group’s Democratic members are Schumer, Dick Durbin of Illinois, Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Michael Bennet of Colorado. The Republican members are Graham, McCain, Rubio and Jeff Flake of Arizona.

In addition to those four, Republicans voting for the bill were Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Jeffrey Chiesa of New Jersey, Susan Collins of Maine, Bob Corker of Tennessee, Orrin Hatch of Utah, Dean Heller of Nevada, John Hoeven of North Dakota, Mark Kirk of Illinois and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.

The House won’t be able to reach a similar accord on a broad immigration bill, said Representative Raul Labrador, an Idaho Republican.

House Group

“I don’t think that we can get a big bipartisan bill, but I think we can strike a lot of coalitions with individual bills that can pass the House that will eventually” be fodder for House-Senate negotiations, Labrador said in an interview.

Labrador said he’s working on proposals after leaving a bipartisan House group that has been discussing immigration for more than four years. The group hasn’t presented a plan.

Representative James Lankford, an Oklahoma Republican, called his Republican colleagues’ position on a citizenship path “the $10 million question in all this.” Some Republicans will support citizenship, Lankford said, while others “would say actually no way ever, ever, ever.”

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