To get DREAM Act over its first hurdle, timing was everything for Democrats

When House Democrats last week passed the DREAM Act before the Senate had staged its vote, the timing was no accident.

Instead, the chronology was part of a carefully designed strategy — orchestrated, with some tension, between the two chambers — to grant the proposal its greatest shot at success. The fast-evolving process required behind-the-scenes scheduling changes; an eleventh-hour hearing; constant lobbying from supporters; and a risky-but-successful show of procedural gymnastics in the Senate — all aimed at lending momentum to the hot-button bill in hopes of enacting it by month's end.

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In short, supporters say, the process has infused life into the policy.

"It actually gives us a chance to win," said Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, an advocacy group lobbying for the bill.

Adey Fisseha, policy attorney for the National Immigration Law Center, echoed that message. "It makes it real, and it increases the pressure," Fisseha said. "They thought they had the votes. They wanted to lock it in. And they did."

Indeed, had the Senate voted first, the bill likely would have failed, and the House would have lost its appetite to stage a vote at all, according to both supporters and critics of the proposal.

" 'If it's not going to pass the Senate, then why should I vote for it?' " said a senior House Democratic aide, explaining how any number of centrists likely would have felt had the bill failed the Senate. "It would just give them another reason to vote against it."

Instead, with the help of many of those centrists, the House passed the bill Wednesday night 216-198, setting the stage for a Senate vote later in the month. For supporters, the result was even better than they'd hoped. Eight Republicans voted yes.

The surprising tally goes a long way toward explaining why Democratic supporters went to such pains to delay the Senate vote while at the same time pushing to expedite floor time in the House.

"We thought it could win, and we thought it would gain momentum," Sharry said. "And both came true."

But it didn't happen easily.

On Monday night, when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) filed for cloture on the bill, he set in motion a series of events — most choreographed out of the public's view — that few would have anticipated at the start of the week.

Though the plan all along was to stage the House vote first, it remained unclear if there was enough lower-chamber support to pass the bill. When House members returned to Washington on Tuesday, about 20 of the most ardent DREAM Act supporters gathered that evening in a small room in the Rayburn office building near the Capitol, according to a Democratic staffer familiar with the meeting. The group pored over lists of on-the-fence lawmakers, searching for discrepancies between statements from those members to leadership versus commitments they'd made to proponents lobbying the bill.

Because the DREAM Act is a tough vote for members representing conservative-leaning districts, there was a sense among supporters that some centrists were telling Democratic leadership they'd oppose the bill — in hopes a poor whip count would dissuade a floor vote — while indicating otherwise to proponents.

The DREAM Act's informal whip team has included a number of members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) — notably Reps. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) and Nydia Velazquez (D-N.Y.) — as well as a long list of Democrats not affiliated with the group. Among them are Reps. Anthony Weiner (N.Y.), Joseph Crowley (N.Y.), Yvette Clarke (N.Y.), Maxine Waters (Calif.), Mike Honda (Calif.), Jared Polis (Colo.) and Howard Berman (Calif.), the lead sponsor of the bill.

On Wednesday morning, Gutierrez, Berman and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), sponsor of the upper chamber bill, held a press conference to make a final public plea for support. They still didn't know if they had the votes, in either chamber, but were whipping hard behind the scenes.

"We picked up votes this morning in the House gym," Gutierrez told reporters.

At that point, the House was expected to vote Wednesday afternoon, with the Senate to follow. But the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) had yet to release its cost estimate for the House bill, and the Rules Committee had yet to consider it. Complicating matters, Vice President Biden was scheduled to meet with the entire caucus that afternoon to lobby for the administration's proposal to extend Bush-era tax cuts — a plan many Democrats are revolting against.

Reid's cloture motion was also a reason for concern through much of Wednesday. That's because once cloture is filed on a bill, the Senate must act on it — even if only to agree not to vote on it. Upper-chamber leaders were stalling in hopes the House would act, but the calendar was filling quickly — like "planes stacking up on the tarmac," the senior Democratic aide said — and there was talk the House vote might be pushed to later in the week.

If the Senate was forced to vote first, "then the House probably wouldn't have voted," said Steven Camarota, research director at the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), which supports tougher immigration enforcement. "Because what's the point?"

Then things picked up. The CBO released its score, energizing supporters by estimating $2.2 billion in taxpayer savings over the next decade. Just after 2 p.m,, the Rules Committee announced it would meet at 3 to consider a rule governing the bill (it passed). And at 4:35, the office of House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) shot out a statement indicating the House would vote later in the day.

"I have assurances that the Senate will wait for the House to act today," Hoyer added.

Six minutes later, Reid took to the Senate floor to deliver a similar message. "I need to have them finish their vote before we vote over here," Reid said. The reason was political, not technical. The Senate, after all, was set to consider a separate version of the DREAM Act.

Shortly after 7 p.m., Reid announced the cloture vote on the Durbin bill would be delayed until the following morning.

In the eyes of House DREAM Act supporters, Reid's decision brought a sigh of relief: They could now focus on rallying support instead of worrying about the Senate pre-empting them with a vote of their own.

"That was the real source of drama on this," said the senior Democratic aide.

Hoyer wasted no time, using Biden's appearance as an opportunity to urge the entire caucus to support the DREAM Act, a plea he made immediately following the discussion on tax cuts. The White House has also lobbied hard in recent weeks for Congress to pass the bill.

A few hours later, the DREAM Act came to the House floor, where it was approved at 9:01 p.m. — the first major immigration-related bill to reach the House floor in five years, and the first time the lower chamber had ever passed the nine-year-old DREAM Act.

The saga was hardly over. After House passage — and recognizing the margin exceeded supporters' expectations — Senate leaders raced to scrap the vote on the Durbin bill and replace it with a vote on the House-passed version.

For Democrats, the advantages to that strategy are several. First, the bill would go directly to the president's desk if the Senate managed to pass it. And second, because the House proposal is attached to shell legislation that's already passed the Senate, Reid can stage a cloture vote at any time on the actual bill, skipping the procedural step of first proceeding to the bill.

Voting on the policy instead of a procedure, supporters say, will put more pressure on fence-sitting senators to back the bill — particularly at a time when both parties are courting the ever-growing Hispanic vote.

"This is a hard vote for a Republican who has aspirations for a higher office," Sharry said.

On Thursday morning, Reid asked for unanimous consent to scrap the Durbin vote and go directly to the House bill. "It having passed the House," he said, "gives us more energy to move forward."

Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) objected.

The objection forced Democrats to vote on tabling the Durbin bill — a delicate process because of concerns such a move could later be interpreted as opposition to the underlying policy. Sharry described the environment as "tense."

Still, the motion passed 59-40, leaving Reid the option to bring the House bill to a vote at any time — and upsetting Republicans anxious to kill the bill.

"It appears that the Democrat leadership lacked the votes for passage, and is now using this maneuver in a last-ditch effort to line up more votes in the remaining hours of this lame-duck session," said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.).

Supporters are quick to concede that's the strategy. Sharry said advocates bombarded Senate leaders after the House vote with the simple message: "Please give us more time."

The bill faces a tough road in the upper chamber. Republicans will filibuster the measure, and a similar bill failed in the Senate in 2007. Since then, party polarization has grown only more severe.

Complicating the vote, Senate Republicans have threatened to kill any proposal that reaches the floor before a resolution is reached on how to extend Bush-era tax cuts and fund the federal government. Proving they were serious, several Republicans critical of the the Pentagon's "Don't ask, don't tell" policy voted Thursday against a measure repealing it.

"That was a clear message," said Melanie Nezer, senior advocacy director at the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, an immigrant-rights group supporting the DREAM Act.

Senate Democrats seem to have heeded it, vowing to finalize the tax-cut and budget issues before bringing anything else to the floor — including the DREAM Act.

Camarota, of the Center for Immigration Studies, said all the wrangling up to now has done little more than put Democrats right back where they started: namely, wondering how to push the bill through the upper chamber.

"It was always assumed it would pass in the House," Camarota said. "The tough battle is in the Senate."

He also questioned why, if House passage of the DREAM Act marks a political victory for Democrats, they didn't bring it up before the elections. "They obviously see that this is not a political winner for them," he said, "or else they would have passed it months ago."

The DREAM Act offers a pathway to permanent residency — and eventually citizenship — for illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children if they meet certain requirements. They must have been in the country for at least five years; have earned a high school diploma, or its equivalent; and enter an institution of higher education or the military.

Supporters say the bill would empower motivated young people to develop the best of their skills for the betterment of the entire country.

"We're talking about a group of people who didn't do anything wrong — they didn't possess the intention to commit a crime or cross the border illegally," Berman said prior to Wednesday's vote. "This is a universe of people who deserve special consideration because the absence of wrongdoing is so clear."

Opponents argue the bill rewards people who broke the law the moment they arrived in the country.

"To grant amnesty is to pardon immigration lawbreakers and reward them with the objective of their crime," Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) said during the floor debate. "This legislation seeks to reward those who are, under the law, eligible for being sent back to their home countries."

Whatever happens, observers of the DREAM Act debate expect the unconventional process, exacerbated by all the urgencies of the lame-duck session, to remain that way.

"Nothing has moved in a predictable fashion [on the DREAM Act]," said ACLU Legislative Counsel Joanne Lin, who supports the bill. "I suspect that will continue to be the case in the Senate."