Can immigration reform pass? Five senators to watch.

Immigration reform will pass the Senate before the Fourth of July, Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada has vowed. Here are five key senators (or groups of senators) that will be pivotal during the two weeks of debate.

2. John Cornyn (R) of Texas

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Senate minority whip John Cornyn (R) of Texas speaks with reporters about the immigration bill following a Republican strategy session on Capitol Hill in Washington in June.

Texas’ senior senator was a persistent critic of the immigration-reform bill as it wound its way through the Judiciary Committee. When the bill came to the floor, Senator Cornyn named the price of his vote: an amendment requiring, among other changes, more border agents and a more extensive system of biometric screening for foreigners at air and seaports than called for in the legislation. 

In doing so, Cornyn is emblematic of the biggest challenge facing Rubio and other Gang of Eight members: What will it take to get more Republicans on board? 

Senator Reid called Cornyn's amendment a “poison pill” aimed at short-circuiting the pathway to citizenship rather than truly defending the border. Meanwhile, Gang of Eight stalwarts McCain and Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York upbraided Cornyn on the Senate floor when he was unable to say what border security priorities would be cut in order to fund his addition of some 6,500 more border agents and expanded biometric screening, all while still staying within the budget laid out by the Gang of Eight bill.  

Cornyn, the Senate’s second-ranking Republican, has said that he’s willing to look for compromise on his initial amendment and he will back the legislation should his amendment pass. 

That would be a huge “get” for immigration reformers and likely open the door to scores of other GOP votes – Sen. Mark Kirk (R) of Illinois conditioned his acceptance of the measure on passage of Cornyn’s amendment, for example. 

Democrats and some Republicans are wondering whether getting Cornyn on board would be worth the compromise, however. The bill has already been carefully calibrated to strike a balance between right and left. There’s also the concern that Cornyn might not be acting in good faith – simply drawing out negotiations before bolting at the final moment. 

Cornyn won’t be the last word on border security – Rubio and other conservatives are going to offer their own border-security amendment. But how the Gang of Eight works with Cornyn (or doesn’t) will shed light on whether or not conservative concerns can be handled alongside Democratic priorities.

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