Tense negotiations, months of deliberation, hundreds of amendments, and hours of speeches on the Senate floor culminated in passage of a bipartisan immigration reform bill on Thursday.
With Vice President Joe Biden presiding over the chamber, 68 senators – 54 Democrats joined by 14 Republicans – rose from their chairs to vote for the most sweeping immigration reform overhaul to pass the chamber since 2006.
“This,” says Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina, a member of the “Gang of Eight” that crafted this year’s bill, “is as good as it gets in the Senate.”
But one question hung over the heady proceedings: Would it all be in vain?
Without a single House Republican leader signaling an interest in taking up the Senate’s legislation, immigration reform’s road from broadly popular idea to legislation on President Obama’s desk is still as murky as ever.
“To our friends in the House, we ask for your consideration,” said Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, plaintively, at a news conference after the vote. “We stand ready to sit down and negotiate with you.”
The Senate bill’s limited appeal to the House isn’t for lack of trying to sweeten the deal for conservatives. The legislation carries an amendment struck by Republican Sens. Bob Corker of Tennessee and John Hoeven of North Dakota that, at an eye-popping cost of more than $40 billion, would nearly double the number of agents stationed along the US-Mexico border and authorize more than 700 miles of border fencing, among other requirements.
“This border-security measure blows my mind,” Senator Graham says. “We’ve practically militarized the border.”
In addition, the Senate bill blocks the undocumented from receiving subsidies under Mr. Obama’s signature health-care law. Those in the United States illegally but seeking to become US citizens must wait 13 years and pay thousands of dollars in fines while being barred from receiving federal benefits.
In another nod to conservatives, none of the 11 million illegal immigrants in the country today would be allowed to become permanent residents until each of five “triggers” are hit:
- Hiring the “surge” of more than 19,000 border agents.
- Building the 750 miles of border fencing.
- Establishing a nationwide E-Verify system for validating a person’s work authorization.
- Making operational more than $4 billion in advanced border-security technology.
- Bringing on line an advanced system of tracking entry and exit from the nation’s airports and seaports.
The bill likewise achieves two goals of the typically conservative-leaning corporate community: vastly expanding efforts to attract and retain high-skilled workers and opening up an entirely new class of visas for low-skilled foreign workers, including those in agricultural industries, to come to the US on a temporary basis.
But what rankles some conservatives is the central concession won by Democrats: The undocumented would be allowed to legalize, if provisionally, before all the bill’s many security measures are in place.
“I can tell you it’s going to make history because it’s going to make the same mistakes that we made in 1986 when we thought we were securing the border and we obviously didn’t,” says Sen. Charles Grassley (R) of Iowa, speaking of the 1986 immigration reform bill that legalized 3 million illegal immigrants but failed to secure the nation’s borders.
“You find out [if] you reward illegality, and you get more of it by four times,” says Senator Grassley, who voted for the 1986 bill signed by President Reagan. “I don’t want to make that mistake again.”
There’s hope among the GOP that the House will achieve conservative goals that couldn’t get enough support in the Senate.
“Remember, this is the beginning of the process, not the end,” Senator Hoeven says. “In other words, the House has to do something.”
But “something” is almost certainly not inclusive of the Senate’s legislation. House leaders – including those supportive of the immigration reform effort like House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio, Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin, and Rep. Raúl Labrador (R) of Idaho – have said the Senate bill won’t get a hearing in the House.
What exactly the House will do is still an open question. House Judiciary chairman Robert Goodlatte (R) of Virginia is moving a passel of bills that address parts of the immigration system, including interior enforcement of immigration laws and nationwide implementation of E-Verify. A bipartisan group of House members has cooked up a single, comprehensive bill on which a final accord has proved elusive for weeks.
But those options and others won’t be formed into a legislative plan no earlier than a GOP conference meeting devoted to immigration on July 10.
And with many conservative House Republicans balking at a Democratic red line of potential citizenship for the undocumented under any circumstances, it's anyone's guess whether lawmakers can reconcile the Senate bill with whatever legislation the House approves.
The perhaps grim fate of the Senate bill in an unrepentantly conservative House was clear on Thursday, even as senators were slapping one another on the back and paying tribute to Ted Kennedy, the late Massachusetts senator whose immigration reform efforts in 2006 and 2007 were indefatigable if, eventually, futile.
As the Gang of Eight assembled to face reporters after the vote, only six senators approached the podium.
Sen. Jeff Flake (R) of Arizona, who ascended to the Senate from the ranks of the House’s most fiscally conservative hawks earlier this year, was absent. So was Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida, the man with presidential aspirations in 2016 who, like many new members of the House, was swept to office on the tea party wave of 2010.
The absence of the two Gang of Eight senators with the most cachet among House Republicans spoke volumes: For now, keeping immigration reform rolling may very well mean steering clear of the bill that the Senate fought so hard to pass.