The Senate moved closer to passage of comprehensive immigration reform legislation on Wednesday by approving a “border security surge” in a 69-29 vote.
Fifteen Republicans voted for the major amendment, putting the Gang of Eight close to their target of winning 70 votes for final passage. The Senate also defeated a GOP budget point of order that sought to stop the immigration measure.
“This is really America at its best. Each one of those eight senators don’t know, just as I don’t know, whether this work will help them or hurt them in their political careers,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said ahead of the vote. “But we have a broken immigration system, and they have come up with a solution to fix it.”
Crafted by Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and John Hoeven (R-N.D.), the border security plan authorizes increasing the number of border patrol agents by 20,000 and constructing 700 miles of fencing. Those border security measures would have to be met within 10 years in order for immigrants to apply for green cards.
“Nobody in this body can say that in this amendment we’re voting on today, that we don’t do anything related to border security in this bill,” Corker said.
The Republicans who voted “yes” were Sens. John McCain (Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Marco Rubio (Fla.), Jeff Flake (Ariz.) — the four GOP authors of the underlying legislation — and Sens. Bob Corker (Tenn.), Kelly Ayotte (N.H.), Jeff Chiesa (N.J.), Susan Collins (Maine), Orrin Hatch (Utah), Dean Heller (Nev.), Mark Kirk (Ill.), John Hoeven (N.D.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Roger Wicker (Miss.) and Lamar Alexander (Tenn.).
Many of the Republicans who voted against the amendment are harshly critical of the overall bill. Sens. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) say it repeats to mistakes of the last major immigration reform in 1986 by making border enforcement “promises” and offering “legalization first.”
“It continues false promises of a secured border,” Grassley said Wednesday. “It ought to be enforcement now and legalization later.”
To lure more GOP votes, language from other senators was included in the security amendment. One of the changes to the bill restricts certain nonimmigrant visa holders, such as tourists and foreign students, from accessing Medicaid programs and Affordable Care Act benefits.
Democrats won changes as well. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) secured language to provide $1.5 billion in grants to state workforce investment boards to help young people find jobs over the next two years.
The amendment also includes a provision from Alaska Sens. Mark Begich (D) and Lisa Murkowski (R) that allows summer workers on J-1 visas to work in fish processing plants in their state. Critics have dubbed it the “Crabhusker kickback.”
The Senate also voted 67-31 Wednesday to end debate on the Senate Judiciary Committee reported substitute amendment to S. 744, setting up a final vote on the measure as early as Thursday.
Managers of the immigration bill are working on a deal to allow a few more amendment votes, setting up a final cloture vote that will happen Thursday on the modified bill. If a deal isn’t reached, final passage will happen Friday instead of Thursday.
Later Wednesday evening, Reid tried to set up votes on 32 amendments — 16 of which were from Republicans — but Grassley objected saying the amendment process had not been as "fair and open" as promised.
"The majority party has offered an agreement that in our view is insufficient," Grassley said. "I feel a bit used and abused in this process for 2.5 weeks we’ve been pushing to get votes on our amendments. We’ve had a measly 10 votes on amendments.
"I’m still willing to negotiate votes, but it will need to be a lot of votes. … In the end we may very well not be having anymore amendment."
The majority leader also said he hopes the House “will follow the Senate’s lead and work to pass bipartisan reform.”
But Grassley said the House would have to rectify the Senate’s “miserable failure.”
“The House of Representatives is going to be the deliberative body on immigration reform and it’s going to put the Senate to shame,” Grassley said.
— This story was updated at 5:18 p.m.