By Alexander Bolton and Ramsey Cox - 06/25/13 12:29 AM EDT
The Senate voted 67-27 Monday to advance a border security amendment to bipartisan immigration legislation, building momentum for a final vote later this week.
Fifteen of the “yes” votes were Republicans, suggesting supporters could hit the 70-vote threshold they hope to reach in the final vote. It is thought a big, bipartisan vote could put pressure in the GOP-held House, where immigration reform faces dimmer prospects.
The Republicans who voted “yes” were Sens. John McCain (Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Marco Rubio (Fla.), Jeff Flake (Ariz.) — the four authors of the legislation — and Sens. Bob Corker (Tenn.), Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), Kelly Ayotte (N.H.), Jeff Chiesa (N.J.), Susan Collins (Maine), Orrin Hatch (Utah), Dean Heller (Nev.), Mark Kirk (Ill.), John Hoeven (N.D.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Roger Wicker (Miss.).
Two Democrats, Sens. Mark Udall (Colo.) and Sherrod Brown (Ohio), missed the vote. If they’d been present, supporters would have won 69 votes on Monday.
Proponents could reach more than 70 votes if they agree to further concessions, or if some Republican senators who missed Monday’s action vote “yes” on final passage.
Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and Sen. Rob Portman (Ohio) were among the notable Republican “no” votes, though it is possible Portman could vote “yes” in the final vote. Portman wants to speed up the implementation timeline for the employer verification program, which mandates that employers check the immigration status of hires.
The amendment advanced Monday would boost security spending by $30 billion, and was intended to address persistent GOP concerns about a porous U.S.-Mexico border.
Crafted by Corker and Hoeven, it authorizes increasing the number of border patrol agents by 20,000 and constructing 700 miles of fencing.
It adds $38 billion in spending for security measures to the $8 billion previously included in the base bill. At a minimum, it requires the implementation of $4.5 billion worth of technology and equipment to achieve full surveillance of the border.
McCain, the chief Republican sponsor of the broader bill who helped negotiate the deal with Corker and Hoeven, said it would ensure a 90 percent apprehension rate of illegal entrants along the Southern border.
“The head of the border patrol has said unequivocally to me that if you get this technological equipment in, that he is confident that we will have 90 percent effective control of the border and 100 percent situational awareness,” he said. That argument failed to convince Mc
Connell, who said the additional spending would not guarantee anything.
“From the outset of this debate, I have been clear about the fact that in order for a reform bill to succeed, we would have to be able to prove to our constituents that the border would finally be secured. If we can’t guarantee that, anything else we do won’t be worth much.”
Negotiators included the language hammered out with Corker and Hoeven in an amendment adding up to nearly 1,200 pages — prompting an outcry from conservative opponents.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), an outspoken critic, grumbled that many of his colleagues did not have enough time to read the legislation.
“This is exactly what happened with ObamaCare,” he said on the Senate floor. “The majority rushed through a complex bill so there would be no time to understand what’s in it.”
Corker argued his new language spans only 119 pages and that the remaining 1,100 pages comprises the original bill, which has been available for review since May.
Corker said “five tangible triggers” in his proposal — which must be achieved in 10 years — would take power out of the hands of the Department of Homeland Security to waive border security provisions.
“If you think border security is not OK under the status quo, vote for this amendment,” Corker said. “If you want to give full control to [Homeland Security Secretary] Janet Napolitano, don’t vote for this amendment.”
Negotiators included language to cement the support of wavering Democrats, as well. Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.), a liberal independent who caucuses with Democrats, secured $1.5 billion over two years for a youth jobs program.
Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), who faces a tough reelection race next year, persuaded negotiators to include language to help the Alaskan seafood industry maintain a reliable pool of seasonal labor.
But not all Democrats were thrilled about the changes. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) criticized the amendment for suspending federal contracting regulations for the border security spending.
“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 in this amendment,” Leahy said on the Senate floor.
Republicans worry the Corker-Hoeven agreement represents the last chance to make significant changes to the legislation before a vote to end debate and move to final passage on Thursday.
Fourteen Republican senators wrote a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on Monday protesting the “deeply disturbing” fast-tracking of the 1,000-plus-page immigration bill.
A spokesman for Reid accused the GOP lawmakers of using the floor proceedings as an excuse to oppose the substance of the legislation.
“This letter is nothing more than a transparent attempt to suppress the strong bipartisan support for immigration reform,” said Adam Jentleson,
Reid plans to hold a vote to end debate on the legislation on Thursday. A final vote could take place on Thursday or Friday.
— Published at 6:32 p.m. and last updated at 8:29 p.m.