Senate votes 82-15 in first step to debate immigration reform

The Senate voted 82-15 on Tuesday to end debate on a motion to proceed to a comprehensive immigration reform bill.

Senators are expected to vote in an hour to proceed to the bill, which will launch a weeks-long floor debate on immigration reform.

Three of the four Republican members of the Gang of Eight — Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) — were joined by more than 20 other GOP senators in voting to advance the debate. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) supports the measure, but missed the vote. That strong support is expected to dwindle if certain amendments aren't agreed to.

"As an elected leader in my party, it’s my view that we at least need to try to improve a situation that, as far as I can tell, very few people believe is working well either for our own citizens, or for those around the world who aspire to become Americans," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said ahead of the vote Tuesday. "I’ll vote to debate it and for the opportunity to amend it, but in the days ahead, there will need to be major changes to this bill if it’s going to become law."

McConnell and Sens. John Cornyn (Texas), Kelly Ayotte (N.H.), Deb Fischer (Neb.), Rob Portman (Ohio), John Thune (S.D.), Orrin Hatch (Utah), Jeff Chiesa (N.J.), Roger Wicker (Miss.), Thad Cochran (Miss.), Pat Toomey (Pa.), Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), John Hoeven (N.D.), Richard Burr (N.C.), Rand Paul (Ky.), Susan Collins (Maine), Jerry Moran (Kan.), Roy Blunt (Mo.), Dan Coats (Ind.), Dean Heller (Nev.), Ron Johnson (Wis.), Bob Corker (Tenn.), Mike Johanns (Neb.), Johnny Isakson (Ga.) and Saxby Chambliss (Ga.) were the Republicans who voted to advance the bill.

The bipartisan group of eight senators, known as the Gang of Eight, introduced S. 744, which would create a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants already in the country, toughen border security, create a guest worker program and boost high-skilled immigration.

“There are 11 million reasons to pass common-sense immigration reform that mends our broken system — 11 million stories of heartbreak and suffering that should motivate Congress to act,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Tuesday. “The bipartisan proposal before the Senate takes important steps to strengthen border security. It also makes crucial improvements to our broken legal immigration system.”

Democrats have praised part of the bill that would grant citizenship to young people, known as Dreamers, who were brought to the country by their parents without legal documentation.

But some Republicans have complained that the legislation would provide amnesty over 10 years for the nearly 11 million residents in the country illegally before strengthening border enforcement. 

The bill makes permanent legal residence contingent on the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) having 100 percent situational awareness at every segment of the southern border and a 90 percent apprehension rate. But some GOP senators have suggested that the bill gives DHS too much say over whether the border is secure, leaving Congress powerless to stop the amnesty program if security measures aren’t met.

Sens. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) have said the bill is similar to the last immigration reform measure in 1986 because it “legalizes first and enforces later.”

“In other words the federal government has always said the right things to the American people, but it has never lived up to its promises,” Cornyn said Tuesday. “This is doable, but we need a leverage to compel the bureaucracy and Congress to get the result the American people want.”

Sessions added that because of the way the legislation is written, he believes Gang of Eight members aren’t really serious about border security.

Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) argued that wasn’t true, pointing out that the bill authorizes more funding for border security and fencing. 

“I know it’s hard to do, but I refuse to accept the idea that the most power country in the world — the country that put a man on the moon — is incapable of securing our border,” Rubio said.

Democratic Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Durbin, Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) are also part of the Gang of Eight.

This story was updated at 3:28 p.m.

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