Senate ‘no’ votes on immigration reform help to boost Boehner

Every Senate Republican leader will vote against the immigration reform bill this week.

Those votes will increase Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) leverage with the White House and Senate Democrats. But congressional experts say the Senate GOP’s opposition decreases the chances that President Obama will sign an immigration measure into law this year.

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The unified leadership front against the pending Senate bill will help Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) fend off calls to schedule a House vote on it. Boehner has been critical of the upper chamber’s bipartisan legislation.

He has said any immigration bill that hits the House floor will have to abide by the so-called “Hastert rule.” But Boehner has left open the possibility that he could schedule a House-Senate immigration measure that does not have the support of most House GOP lawmakers.

Democrats, including Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), are touting their expectations that the 1,200-page bill will pass with about 70 votes, including the support of about 15 Republicans. They say this will put pressure on Boehner to agree to legislation granting legal status to millions of illegal immigrants.

“It makes it much more difficult to get passed,” said John Feehery, a former senior House GOP leadership aide and a columnist for The Hill. “The Republican leadership is all against it in the Senate, and the Republican leadership is much more conservative by and large in the House. I just can’t see how Boehner sticks his neck out.”

Not one Senate GOP leader voted on Monday for an amendment to add 20,000 border patrol agents and construct 700 miles of fencing along the U.S.-Mexico line. The amendment included the 1,100-page underlying bill along with 119 pages of new border-security language, providing a forecast of how lawmakers would vote on final passage.

“I see that probably as unlikely that there are going to be amendments that get adopted between now and the time we get to final passage that will change my view on it. The vote last night in a lot of ways, for all intents and purposes, was the vote on the legislation,” Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Thune (S.D.) said.

“By and large, I think what you’re seeing right now is probably what you’re going to get in the final passage,” he added.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) set the tone by declaring Monday the legislation would not guarantee border security before putting millions of illegal immigrants on a pathway to citizenship. “If we can’t guarantee that, anything else we do won’t be worth much,” he said in a statement.

On Tuesday, McConnell told reporter,  “I hope the House will be able to pass a companion measure and we’ll have a conference and deal with an issue of this magnitude in a way that we should.”

GOP strategists say the Boehner-McConnell alliance is strong.

“When this bill passes the Senate, the fact that Republican leaders are voting against it takes some pressure off the House Republican leadership,” said Ron Bonjean, a GOP strategist who formerly served as a senior leadership aide in the Senate and the House. “They now have some cover.”

The House is expected to move several smaller pieces of immigration legislation addressing border security and other issues after the weeklong July 4 recess. That would initiate a Senate-House conference to negotiate a compromise.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said last week Boehner will soon feel the heat. 

But Bonjean said there is little chance House Republicans will embrace a comprehensive bill that provides a pathway to citizenship.

“There’s wide skepticism that we’ll see anything come out of conference,” he said. “I’m very skeptical. The chances of an immigration bill becoming law this year are very remote.”

Senate Republican Policy Committee Chairman John Barrasso (Wyo.) voted against the motion to proceed to the bill earlier this month and plans to vote no on final passage. 

“Unless something drastically changes, I’ll continue to vote that way,” he said.

Senate Republican Conference Vice Chairman Roy Blunt (Mo.) declared his opposition Tuesday in a statement: “According to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, the underlying Senate bill would only cut illegal immigration by 25 percent. That’s just not good enough.”

Senate Republican Whip John Cornyn (Texas) has stated since early in the debate that he would only vote for immigration reform if it mandated 100 percent surveillance capabilities and a 90-percent apprehension rate of illegal crossers along the southern border. He says these benchmarks are non-negotiable.

National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Jerry Moran (Kan.) also voted against the border security amendment Monday.

Fifteen Republican senators voted for the amendment, and that number could grow slightly. 

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) said he could vote “yes” on final passage if the Senate adopts changes he has proposed to strengthen the E-Verify program, which employers use to check the legal status of hires. Portman wants to speed up the program’s implementation timeline and strengthen its authentication requirements.

Sens. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) and Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) missed Monday’s vote and are also seen as possible yes votes.

Reid said Tuesday it’s hard to predict how Boehner will react to the opposition of Senate GOP leaders.

“The Speaker has said within a period of a little over 24 hours, we’re going to pass [an] immigration bill [and will] have Democratic votes to do it. As soon as these [Republican] crazies heard that, I guess they talked to him, and the next day he came back and said, ‘I will only pass it if I have majority of the majority,’ ” Reid said.

“So the point is, I’m not sure [he or] anyone else in the House really know what they’re doing,” he added. 

Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said, “House Republicans support immigration reform. Our focus is getting the policy right, so we fix our broken immigration system and help our economy grow. And anything as far-reaching, complex, and permanent as immigration reform should not be enacted without broad bipartisan support. … If immigration reform is going to work, it is essential that we have the confidence of the American people that it is done the right way and with the support of a majority of both parties in Congress.”