Partisan lines harden in Senate over immigration reform bill

Partisan lines are hardening over the Senate’s immigration reform bill, downgrading hopes a 70-plus majority of senators will back it in an up-or-down vote next week.

The bill seems likely to pass the Senate, particularly after a Congressional Budget Office score on Tuesday found it would reduce deficits by $700 billion over the next two decades.

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Yet hopes the bill could win 70 or 80 votes are fading along with the chances that a key amendment sponsored by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) will be approved.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on Tuesday said he opposes including any triggers in the bill that would have to be pulled before the path to citizenship is granted to millions of immigrants.

That likely dooms Cornyn’s measure, which could come up for a vote as early as Wednesday. It would make permanent legal residency for illegal immigrants contingent on reaching ambitious border-security benchmarks.

In another blow to the amendment on Tuesday, Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.), a Republican member of the Gang of Eight, said he would vote against it.

If Cornyn’s amendment isn’t added, he and a number of other Republicans are unlikely to support the bill.

“Absent passage of that sort of enforcement mechanism, I can’t support this bill, and there will be many Republicans who cannot and many others who believe that it’s just another hollow promise,” Cornyn said Tuesday.

Losing Cornyn’s vote will imperil the support of other Republican leaders. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) last week called Cornyn’s “the key amendment.”

Democrats have signaled in recent days that they’ll be satisfied if they don’t get a supermajority of more than 70 votes, a goal of Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), who believes it would give House Republicans political cover to support comprehensive immigration reform.

Reid has told Schumer not to worry about the political calculus in the House.

“I have talked to my four Democrats [on] the Gang of Eight and I have told them, ‘Concentrate on the Senate. Don’t at this stage worry about what’s going to happen in the House,’ ” Reid told reporters Tuesday.

It will now be more difficult to reach the 70-vote mark, even though Graham predicted in an NBC interview Sunday that the Senate legislation will pass with “plus 70 votes.”

Democrats can count on about 10 Republicans to vote for the bill, but that gets them to 64 votes for final passage.

The Republicans considered most likely to vote yes are the four members of the Senate Gang of Eight —Marco Rubio (Fla.), John McCain (Ariz.), Jeff Flake (Ariz.) and Graham — and Sens. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Kelly Ayotte (N.H.), Mark Kirk (Ill.), Dean Heller (Nev.) and Susan Collins (Maine). 

Reid warned that any amendments that put obstacles in the pathway to citizenship would threaten Democratic support.

“I’m not in favor of a trigger,” he said. “If there needs [to be] more done in the eyes of some senators on border security, put those proposals forward.

“But we have to be really, really careful with triggers, because there are a lot of important things in this legislation,” he added. “The pathway to citizenship is really important.”

The Senate voted Tuesday, largely along party lines, to reject a trigger proposed by Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the third-ranking member of the Republican leadership.

The Senate voted 39-54 to defeat Thune’s proposal to require the construction of 350 miles of new fence along the southern border before granting provisional legal status to immigrants.

Members of the Gang of Eight had been negotiating with Cornyn about changing his amendment. After Cornyn told Republican colleagues at a closed-door meeting last week that he was open to modifying it, some of them felt convinced he would ultimately vote for the bill, paving the way for it to pass with more than 70 votes.

However, no deal on the Cornyn amendment was in sight Tuesday afternoon.

“The one part that’s non-negotiable is the part that actually enforces the standard set out in the Gang of Eight bill,” Cornyn said.

The Senate bill sets the goals of 100 percent border-monitoring capabilities and a 90 percent apprehension rate of illegal entrants along the southern border but does not require them before granting permanent legal residency. Cornyn would make those goals mandatory.

Democratic members of the Gang say this demand is unacceptable.

Durbin has called the apprehension rate trigger “totally unacceptable.”

“What would not be acceptable to us is a sense that the pathway to citizenship is somehow contingent or not real,” said Sen. Michael Bennet (Colo.), another Democratic member of the Gang.

The stalemate over a border-security trigger for the pathway to citizenship leaves it to other Republicans to negotiate a deal. Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and John Hoeven (R-N.D.) are working on an amendment to strengthen border security, and so is Rubio.

Negotiators say they were working diligently but had nothing to report as of Tuesday afternoon.

“We’re working away. We’re working away,” McCain said. “Constant meetings, constant conversations.”

“I think we should have had something yesterday,” he said.