Immigration reform bill clears significant hurdle in the Senate

Immigration reform legislation passed a significant hurdle Tuesday when the Senate voted overwhelmingly to begin consideration of the lightning-rod bill.

Thirty Republicans, including Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGOP moves to cut debate time for Trump nominees McConnell hits back at 'ridiculous' Chinaperson remark GOP senator: 'We were there' on immigration before talks got derailed MORE (Ky.), voted to take up the measure in the 84-15 vote, revealing a deep well of potential support. 

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The vote tally was a promising sign of bipartisanship, and the legislation appeared to have strong momentum after Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerArizona GOP winner to join Freedom Caucus We need more congressional oversight on matters of war A warning to Ryan’s successor: The Speakership is no cakewalk MORE (R-Ohio) predicted Tuesday that immigration reform would become law by year’s end. 

The bill will first have to emerge from the Senate, however, where many of the Republican “yes” votes on Tuesday warned they would not support the measure in a final vote unless its border security language was strengthened. 

It also remains unclear whether an immigration reform bill will pass the House, where there is strong opposition among conservatives to the Senate bill. 

Still, BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerArizona GOP winner to join Freedom Caucus We need more congressional oversight on matters of war A warning to Ryan’s successor: The Speakership is no cakewalk MORE’s comments highlight the pressure on the House — and on Republicans — to not be seen as obstacles to a bill despite opposition from grassroots conservatives. 

The GOP senators who voted “yes” on Tuesday included three of the four Republicans who helped draft the measure: Sens. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeJulian Castro predicts Arizona will 'go blue' for Senate, presidential election GOP anxiety grows over Trump’s Iran decision GOP senator: Trump's comment on Kim Jong Un 'surpasses understanding' MORE (Ariz.), Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioLobbying world Former Florida congressmen mull bipartisan gubernatorial run: report Winners and losers from Jim Bridenstine’s confirmation as NASA administrator MORE (Fla.) and Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGOP anxiety grows over Trump’s Iran decision Overnight Cybersecurity: Senators eye path forward on election security bill | Facebook isn't winning over privacy advocates | New hacks target health care Paul backs Pompeo, clearing path for confirmation MORE (S.C.). Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainGOP moves to cut debate time for Trump nominees GOP advances proposal to change Senate rules Julian Castro predicts Arizona will 'go blue' for Senate, presidential election MORE (Ariz.) missed the vote. 

The other GOP “yes” votes were McConnell and Sens. John CornynJohn CornynGOP moves to cut debate time for Trump nominees Republicans want Trump’s VA nominee to withdraw Senators to Trump: Let Mueller finish Russia probe MORE (Texas), Kelly AyotteKelly Ann AyotteThe Hill's Morning Report: Koch Network re-evaluating midterm strategy amid frustrations with GOP Audit finds US Defense Department wasted hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars US sends A-10 squadron to Afghanistan for first time in three years MORE (N.H.), Deb FischerDebra (Deb) Strobel FischerMeet the Democratic sleeper candidate gunning for Senate in Nebraska Tariff fight could hit GOP in key Senate states Russia, China eclipse US in hypersonic missiles, prompting fears MORE (Neb.), Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanWe must all come together to overcome the opioid epidemic Senators debate new business deduction, debt in tax law hearing Tax rules will be subject to more OMB review under new memo MORE (Ohio), John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneRepublicans want Trump’s VA nominee to withdraw Senators debate new business deduction, debt in tax law hearing House, Senate GOP compete for cash MORE (S.D.), Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchSenators to Trump: Let Mueller finish Russia probe Conservative justices signal willingness to uphold travel ban Medical marijuana legislation gets support of key House Republican MORE (Utah), Jeff Chiesa (N.J.), Roger WickerRoger Frederick WickerLet's hold Facebook to the same standards as other players in the industry Cindy Hyde-Smith sworn in as Mississippi's latest senator Miss. 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Even before the vote, leaders were jockeying for leverage on amendments to rework the fragile, 1,000-page compromise hammered out by the Senate’s Gang of Eight. 

“The bill has serious flaws,” McConnell said before the vote. “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 called for changes to strengthen the border security language and restrict federal benefits and tax breaks for immigrants receiving provisional legal status. 

Boehner called for similar changes in an interview aired Tuesday. 

“I’ve got real concerns about the Senate bill, especially in the area of border security and internal enforcement of the system. I’m concerned that it doesn’t go far enough,” Boehner told ABC. 

Many Republicans are pushing for an amendment sponsored by Cornyn that would require 100 percent monitoring capability and a 90 percent apprehension rate of illegal entrants along the southern border before granting permanent legal status to millions of immigrants in the country illegally. Cornyn’s plan would also require tracking visa exits with biometric data at certain air and sea ports. 

McConnell praised it as “the key amendment” and said it would “put us in a position where we can look the American people in the face and say we are going to secure the border.” 

Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidGOP moves to cut debate time for Trump nominees Harry Reid: ‘The less we talk about impeachment, the better off we are’ Lobbying world MORE (D-Nev.) warned its adoption could sink the entire bill. 

“He has set out the principles of what’s in that amendment, and his principles would be a poison pill to this bill,” Reid said. 

Other members of the Gang of Eight, which drafted the legislation, disagree with Reid. 

“There’s been some talk about some kind of poison pill. That’s not the case. Cornyn’s trying to get language that he can support so we’re working with him,” said Flake.

Reid has claimed it will be fairly easy to round up 60 votes for Senate passage because Democrats expect only one or two defections and four Republicans on the Gang of Eight have already pledged their support.

Ayotte, for example, declared her endorsement before the procedural vote. 

“Our immigration system is completely broken,” Ayotte said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” Sunday. “This is a thoughtful, bipartisan solution to a tough problem. So that’s why I’m going to support it.” 

But Cornyn says his amendment will need to be adopted to push the bill over the hump. 

“I’ve talked fairly regularly with Sen. [Charles] Schumer [D-N.Y.] and conversations continue,” he said, referring to another Gang of Eight member. 

“I think if they had 60 votes to pass the bill out of the Senate they probably wouldn’t be talking to me,” he added. “Which tells me they view this as a way to get it out of the Senate on a bipartisan basis that would give it some momentum and increase the likelihood of the bill passing in the House as well.”

President Obama, for his part, warned opponents not to use “procedural games” to stop it in remarks on the bill Tuesday. 

He said there was “no reason Congress can’t get this done by the end of summer.” 

Rubio, a pivotal member of the Gang of Eight who is in charge of selling the bill to conservatives, has also called for changes to bolster the enforcement provisions.

Rubio said he would introduce his proposal “soon.” It would include a specific border security plan in the legislation and leave less to the discretion of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. 

“The one that I’ve been focused on the most is that people just want to make sure whatever the border security plan is an effective one, and they’re worried the Department of Homeland Security will not craft a border security plan that does that,” he said. 

On Tuesday, Rubio introduced an amendment to strengthen the requirement that immigrants demonstrate English proficiency before receiving permanent legal status. 

Rubio’s amendment would strike language in the pending bill allowing the English proficiency requirement to be met simply by signing up for a language course. 

Critics of the legislation have panned it for not doing enough to require millions of illegal immigrants to learn English as a condition for obtaining permanent legal residency. 

ProEnglish, a group advocating for strong language requirements for immigrants, argued the authors of the bill have overstated its English standards. 

— Erik Wasson contributed.