Senate Votes to Begin Historic Immigration Reform Debate

Jun 11, 2013 2:26 PM

NBC NEWS-By a wide margin, the Senate voted Tuesday to formally begin debating an historic overhaul to the nation's immigration laws that would allow those currently residing in the United States without documentation a pathway to citizenship.

Senators voted 82 to 15 on a procedural question that essentially opened an immigration debate set to dominate the upper chamber through the Fourth of July holiday. A handful of Republicans joined with most Democrats in support of opening the debate over legislation crafted by a bipartisan group of senators known as the "Gang of Eight." Their legislation is regarded as the best chance to win comprehensive immigration reform since 2007, when a similar reform effort sputtered in Congress.

The legislation enjoys the strong support of President Barack Obama, who earlier in the day sought to gain momentum for his top second-term legislative priority by urging Congress to pass a comprehensive immigration reform measure before the end of the summer, warning those who would oppose the bill that there is “no good reason to play procedural games or engage in obstruction.”

“To truly deal with this issue, Congress needs to act,” he added. “And that moment is now.”

Tuesday's vote offered a first tally of the most hardened opponents of the bill. The 60-vote threshold measure will allow the Senate to formally begin debate on the legislation.

But while that initial hurdle is expected to be easily cleared, Republican support for beginning the discussion of the legislation is no guarantee – yet – of the overwhelming bipartisan vote that proponents are hoping to garner when the upper chamber votes on the final bill before the Senate’s July 4 recess.

Debate so far has offered senators the chance to voice concerns, opposition, support and even a history-making full floor speech delivered in Spanish by Sen. Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat.

Speaking on the Senate floor Tuesday morning, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell reiterated that he will vote to begin debate but expressed concerns with the bill’s “serious flaws.”

“I'll vote to debate it and for the opportunity to amend it, but in the days ahead there will need to be major changes to this bill if it's going to become law," McConnell said.

Some supporters of the comprehensive immigration reform bill have suggested that passage with upward of 70 Senate votes would offer the best chance of pushing the bill through the GOP-controlled House, while others believe their margin of victory matters less than maintaining what they see as the strongest possible protections for immigrants aiming to become citizens.

"If we get just a handful of Republicans I think it probably dies in the House, so I think it’s imperative we get close to half our conference," Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina told reporters before the procedural vote.

In the weeks to come, backers of the bill will consider various amendments designed to woo more votes, while opponents of the legislation will offer changes designed to gut the current bill’s major tenets – including its provision to allow many undocumented immigrants to pursue legal status and eventual citizenship.

Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who has said he wants additional border security measures included in the legislation, announced Tuesday that he will offer a measure to strengthen the requirements for undocumented immigrants to demonstrate English language skills before earning a green card.

Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican who is one of the most outspoken critics of the bill, said earlier this week that Obama stands in the way of passage of immigration reforms because of his support for citizenship rights for undocumented immigrants – a controversial but foundational piece of the comprehensive reform package.

A Democrat on the Gang of Eight offered a creative diagnosis for Cruz’s opposition Tuesday during an appearance on MNSC’s Daily Rundown.

“I think he has Obamaphobia," said Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey. "The reality is that it is the Gang of Eight that came together — four Democrats, four Republicans — and said that we need a path to citizenship."

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