By Alexander Bolton - 06/24/13 09:00 AM EDT
Immigration reform has gotten a new burst of life as a growing number of Senate Republicans have embraced the 1,000-page-plus legislation, setting up President Obama for a big victory this week. [WATCH VIDEO]
The sudden surge in Republican support has been a pleasant surprise for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who urged the bill’s authors to focus on winning 60 votes — the minimum for passing it.
The House is the X factor. The lower chamber is expected to pass narrow immigration bills that do not include a path to citizenship, which is a staple of the Senate legislation. Conservatives in the House, including Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), strongly oppose the Senate bill.
Still, an overwhelming bipartisan vote would be a strong boost for a Senate bill that just days ago was teetering.
Schumer said Sunday the bill has support from about two-thirds of the Senate’s members and predicted it would attract “in the neighborhood of 70 votes” for final passage.
He said such an outcome would put pressure on House Republicans to accept legislation similar to the Senate bill and warned of massive demonstrations in Washington if Boehner refused.
“If he tries to bottle it up or do things like that, I could see a million people on the mall in Washington,” he said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
The bill’s authors secured extra Republican votes by striking a deal with Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and John Hoeven (R-N.D.) to double the number of patrol agents and construct 700 miles of fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border at a cost of roughly $38 billion.
The measure includes a provision that would prevent immigrants from claiming credit for time spent working illegally when it comes to calculating Social Security benefits. It would also ensure welfare dollars do not go to immigrants with provisional legal status.
The deal created some friction with liberal Democrats such as Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who argued that a promise of $4.5 billion in new border-security technology spending is a potential magnet for waste and fraud.
Leahy grumbled that the Corker-Hoeven language “reads like a Christmas wish list for Halliburton.”
Speaking on the Senate floor, he added, “I am sure there are federal contracting firms high-fiving at the prospect of all of the spending demanded by some of our friends on the other side.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.), a liberal independent who caucuses with Democrats, has spoken out against what he has called a “massive increase in temporary guest worker programs” at a time of high unemployment. But Sanders is likely to vote for the bill after negotiators agreed to provide $1.5 billion over two years for a youth jobs program.
Negotiators secured the support of Sen. Mark Begich (Alaska), another swing Democratic vote, by including language ensuring immigrant labor for Alaskan seafood processors — an arrangement that has already been dubbed “the Crabhusker kickback.”
Sen. Mark Pryor (Ark.), the most vulnerable Democratic incumbent in the 2014 election, says he is leaning in favor of the bill. His pledge puts Reid on a trajectory to pass it with the support of all 54 members of the Democratic caucus.
Senate opponents of the legislation had done a good job keeping their Republican colleagues in check up to the middle of last week.
Last Tuesday, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said the legislation “could fall apart quickly” without an agreement on border security. A day later, even Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a pivotal member of the Gang of Eight, declined to say whether he would vote “yes” on final passage.
The political calculus quickly changed on Thursday morning as news of the Corker-Hoeven deal spread. By early afternoon, reporters were already asking Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and other opponents if they were fighting a “losing battle.”
Fox News host Bill O’Reilly became a harbinger of conservative support when he endorsed the Senate bill on Thursday.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), the Democrats’ top electoral target next year, opened the door for a larger bipartisan vote by not trying to rein in any Republicans from backing it. At the outset of the debate, he said he hoped the Senate would pass a bill.
The likelihood of McConnell voting for the bill dropped Sunday when his home-state colleague Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) announced on CNN that he would vote against it for not guaranteeing border security before granting legal status to millions of people.
Sessions said Republican support for the Corker-Hoeven amendment could wane as senators learn more of its details.
He noted the legislation would not require the full deployment of 20,000 additional border patrol agents until 2021 and would let Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano dispense with the fence-building requirement if she judges it unnecessary.
“If people find out this amendment does not accomplish what the sponsors believe it does, I think the bill could be back in trouble again,” he said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
Reid admitted Friday that he had not thought the bill would win 70 votes. He initially pushed back against the target, fearing that meeting it would require steep concessions.
“No one other than the senator from New York thought we could get 70 votes,” Reid said on the floor, referring to Schumer. “I doubted he could get 70 votes. He knows I doubted that. No one in this body thought we could get 68, 72 votes except him.”
Reid has scheduled a vote on the Corker-Hoeven compromise, which is expected to pass easily, on Monday and a vote to end debate on the broader bill on Thursday. His schedule would set up a vote on final passage before lawmakers leave for the July 4 recess.
The Nevada Democrat predicted last week that “there’s going to be significant national pressure on the House to do something on immigration.”
Even though there is renewed optimism in the Senate, there is growing skepticism that the GOP-led House will ever accept a bill that includes a pathway to citizenship.
Last week’s collapse of the farm bill, which required support from both sides of the aisle, led to partisan finger-pointing. If any immigration bill is going to get to Obama’s desk this year, it will have to be backed by both parties.