Momentum shifts in immigration reform debate as Senate nears 70 votes

Momentum has shifted in the battle over immigration reform, putting Senate Democrats in a position to pass a bipartisan bill with well over 60 votes.

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Republican lawmakers predicted Thursday that as many as 15 Republicans could vote for comprehensive immigration reform legislation, putting the bill’s sponsors in striking distance of their 70-vote goal.

The bill’s sponsors scored a victory Thursday when they announced a deal with Republican Sens. Bob Corker (Tenn.) and John Hoeven (N.D.) to double the number of border patrol agents to 40,000. The compromise also mandates the construction of 700 miles of fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border and an increased deployment of surveillance technology.

“This amendment really toughens the bill, and it’s squarely focused on border security,” Hoeven told reporters Thursday afternoon.

Corker predicted the agreement could secure 15 Republican votes for the legislation, a number that conservative critics of the bill now concede is possible.

“I think there’s a great possibility of bringing on 15 Republicans and, candidly, it’s possible that as this moves along, more as people look at it,” said Corker.

A senior Republican lawmaker who has been an outspoken critic of the 1,000-plus page Senate bill said 10 to 12 Republicans in addition to the four members of the Gang of Eight could ultimately vote for the bill.

“There are a bunch of people looking for an excuse to vote for this,” said the lawmaker, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about his colleagues.

But members of the Gang of Eight, who drafted the bill, remain uncertain whether they would hit their 70-vote target.

Their optimistic mood was dampened by the surprise defeat Thursday of a five-year farm bill in the House. It served as a grim reminder that, even if the Senate passes immigration reform, it faces a tough road in the lower chamber.

“Of course I worry, but you can only do so much, and I think by getting a significant vote in the Senate that maybe that would be very helpful,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a leading member of the Gang of Eight. “There’s always a certain amount of kind of rivalry between both sides of the Capitol, and I certainly try to avoid telling them what I think they should do.”

McCain said he did not know whether his allies would muster 70 votes for the Senate bill.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) issued a blunt warning Thursday that Democrats must compromise on immigration reform and should not to ram it through the Senate on a mostly party-line vote.

“In my view, anything as far-reaching, as complex and as permanent as immigration reform should not be enacted without broad bipartisan support,” he said at his weekly Capitol press conference. “Every day as ObamaCare is being implemented, Americans are reminded of what happens when we have big legislation rammed through Congress with minimal support.”

The bill received another boost Thursday evening when Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, an influential conservative, endorsed it.

“It is time for the USA to pass immigration reform. For years, I’ve called for a more secure southern border, you know that. And now it looks like the secure border is in reach. At least somewhat. So I hope this bill does become law,” he said on his show

Senate negotiators were still crafting the Corker-Hoeven amendment late Thursday evening. It was not ready to be filed at 10:30 p.m. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said he hoped it would be finalized by the time the Senate convened at 10:30 a.m. Friday.

Negotiators are working to expand the amendment beyond the border security provisions to attract the support of additional Republicans. As many as 20 senators participated in talks, according to Reid.

Hoeven said he hoped Democrats would accept language sponsored by Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a member of the Gang of Eight, and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) to ensure immigrants with temporary legal status pay back taxes and cannot receive federal benefits.

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) has pushed an amendment to strengthen the employer verification program. It would speed up the timeline for implementation and tighten authentication requirements. If Portman’s E-verify proposals are not included in the Corker-Hoeven measure, it may not receive a vote on the Senate floor.

Reid signaled Thursday evening he would file a motion to end debate on the immigration bill shortly after finalizing the Corker-Hoeven amendment, prompting an outcry from some Republicans and Democrats.

Senators have filed 350 amendments to the bill, but have so far voted on only nine of those proposals.

McCain said other issues remain to be worked out, but that the Corker-Hoeven deal on border security addressed the main concern of many Republicans.

“There are other issues that are very important, but obviously the biggest one is this issue of border security,” he said.

Rubio, who has taken the lead role in selling the bill to conservatives, praised the Corker-Hoeven amendment as an important breakthrough.

“I think it is the most substantial border security plan we have ever had before any body of Congress,” he said on the Senate floor.

Earlier in the week, he had declined to answer direct questions about whether he would vote for final passage of the bill.

Even with the expected adoption of the Corker-Hoeven amendment, the legislation will face staunch opposition from conservative Republicans.

Critics have zeroed in on Democrats’ unwillingness to make the pathway to citizenship contingent on full operational control of the southern border.

“For me it’s turning out to be 1986 all over again,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley (Iowa), the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, in reference to the 1986 immigration reform law. “The Senate is about to make the same mistake of legalizing undocumented workers without securing the border.”