Key Dems may back DREAM Act

Senate Democrats who blocked an immigration bill in 2007 say they are undecided on how to vote on the measure this week.

Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) plans to attach the controversial DREAM Act to the defense authorization bill. But it’s unclear if it can attract 60 votes.

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The DREAM Act, introduced by Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), would grant U.S. citizenship to certain children of illegal immigrants who came to the country before the age of 16.

Democrats helped block the bill three years ago when it fell eight votes short on a procedural motion. While some Republicans supported that motion, eight Democrats voted no, including the late Sen. Robert Byrd (W.Va.) and Sens. Max Baucus (Mont.), Mary Landrieu (La.), Mark Pryor (Ark.), Kent Conrad (N.D.), Claire McCaskill (Mo.), Jon Tester (Mont.) and Byron Dorgan (N.D.).

Five of those senators — Conrad, Dorgan, McCaskill, Pryor and Landrieu — told The Hill they haven’t made up their minds about this week’s vote.

“It’s not one of the things I’m focused on right now, but at the appropriate time I will review it,” Conrad said.

“I’ll take a look at how it’s constructed. I haven’t made a judgment about it,” said Dorgan.

McCaskill was slightly more optimistic.

“It depends on the language,” she said. “I have some problems with the way the bill was drafted last time. I am certainly more comfortable with the notion that somebody who has been in the country for five years and who came here through the fault of their parents and not their fault ought to get a green card to serve in the military. I’m very sympathetic to that. I’m just looking at the drafting now.”

But Pryor is leaning no.

“I’ll have to look at it and see, but my inclination is probably to vote against it again,” he said. “But I want to look at it and see. I know there’s been some changes.”

A Landrieu spokesman said the Louisiana senator has not yet taken a position on the bill.

Meanwhile, military officials are pushing for a successful vote this week, saying the DREAM Act would aid recruitment efforts.

Louis Caldera, a former Army secretary and director of the White House military office, noted to reporters Friday that the Department of Defense’s fiscal 2010-12 plan says passage would help “shape and maintain a mission-ready, all-volunteer force.”

GOP senators who backed the 2007 motion are planning to vote no this time around.

Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah is opposed to the bill, for example, as is his colleague, Sen. Bob Bennett.

“I support the DREAM Act as free-standing legislation, but putting it in a bill that has a number of objectionable aspects is not something I support,” Bennett said in a statement. “If Harry Reid brings it to the floor as a standalone bill, I will vote for it.”

But proponents of the DREAM Act say GOP arguments about process fall short. They note that 12 Republicans voted for the cloture motion in 2007, pointing out that — just like this year — the DREAM Act was a proposed amendment to the defense authorization measure.

Bennett’s position mirrors that of several other Republicans.

“This is rank politics,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who has previously been an ally to Democrats on immigration reform. “There’s no way I’m going to vote for the DREAM Act in isolation on the defense bill. And if they think I’m the problem, they’re wrong. I will support good, comprehensive immigration reform, but not like this.”

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who voted no in 2007, stopped just short of threatening a GOP filibuster and said Reid risks killing a more comprehensive immigration reform package by submitting the DREAM Act prematurely.

“I’m for comprehensive reform, and it’s a mistake just to carve out one little piece of that and pass it independently,” Cornyn said. “Frankly, that’s one of the most sympathetic portions of immigration reform, and I’ve always thought it’s one of the engines that helps pull the train when it comes to other aspects of the issue. If it passes as a standalone, it will take the wind out of the sails to do other things we need to do on immigration.”

Both Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and Minority Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.) also voiced their displeasure, with McConnell telling The Hill that Reid is turning the defense authorization bill into “a Christmas tree for various interest group votes.”

Durbin said Republicans have only themselves to blame. Because of GOP “obstructionism,” he said, Democrats have no choice but to attach the legislation to the popular defense bill.

“It reflects the desperate situation we face,” he said. “Because of their filibusters and the 60-vote requirements, the Senate has ground to a halt time and time again. We have so few opportunities to do anything of substance here, so Sen. Reid has decided we should try to seize this opportunity. For those who oppose it, I understand some of them are of good motive and others are not, but we’re going to do our best.”

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who met with President Obama at the White House on Thursday about the issue, brushed aside the suggestion that Democrats could again help block the bill.

“Democrats weren’t totally on board on healthcare. They weren’t totally on board on Wall Street reform. They’re not totally on board with what to do on taxes. Why would this be the one issue that we would have an expectation that Democrats would be totally on board?” Menendez said. “On none of the major issues of the day has there been unanimity in the caucus. So I don’t expect unanimity in our caucus. I do expect the great majority of our caucus will ultimately support this.”

Durbin said he has not yet whipped the vote but hopes to win over enough of his Democratic colleagues.

“It is the defense authorization bill that’s the underlying bill, and there’s good reason to vote for that,” he said. “I hope I can get them on final passage of the DREAM Act too.”

There are at least 40 solid yes votes, but getting to 60 will be difficult.

The only GOP Senate sponsor of the DREAM Act this year is Richard Lugar (Ind.).

Spokesmen for Republican Sens. Sam Brownback (Kan.), Susan Collins (Maine), Kay Bailey Hutchison (Texas), George LeMieux (Fla.), Olympia Snowe (Maine) and Scott Brown (Mass.) did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Democrats who didn’t comment for this article include Sens. Carte Goodwin (W.Va.), Max Baucus (Mont.) and Jon Tester (Mont.).

Democrats who voted no in 2007
Max Baucus (Mont.)
Robert Byrd (W.Va.) *
Kent Conrad (N.D.)
Byron Dorgan (N.D.)
Mary Landrieu (La.)
Claire McCaskill (Mo.)
Mark Pryor (Ark.)
Jon Tester (Mont.)

Republicans who voted yes in 2007
Bob Bennett (Utah)
Sam Brownback (Kan.)
Norm Coleman (Minn.) *
Susan Collins (Maine)
Larry Craig (Idaho) *
Chuck Hagel (Neb.) *
Orrin Hatch (Utah)
Kay Bailey Hutchison (Texas)
Trent Lott (Miss.) *
Richard Lugar (Ind.)
Mel Martinez (Fla.) *
Olympia Snowe (Maine)

Senators who did not vote
Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.)
Chris Dodd (D-Conn.)
Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.)*
John McCain (R-Ariz.)


* — Senators who are no longer serving in the upper chamber