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It's Zero Hour for Senate Immigration Bill

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - June 10, 2013

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Who are the key senators to watch this week?

Under Senate rules, the bill needs 60 votes to pass, but supporters are aiming for 70 under the theory that broad support for a bipartisan bill will pressure the House into action. The 60-vote threshold might be hard enough to attain. Republicans might not sign on if they sense that it would be shelved in the House, thus risking their vote for something that may not have a future.

New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte, a key Mitt Romney surrogate in 2012, endorsed the bill on Sunday in an interview with CBS's “Face the Nation,” calling the legislation "a thoughtful, bipartisan solution to a tough problem."

Still, some of Ayotte's colleagues are standing in the way. Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Jeff Sessions of Alabama, Mike Lee of Utah and Chuck Grassley of Iowa are leading the charge against the bill. These four lawmakers, who serve on the Judiciary Committee and voted against the measure there, wrote a letter to colleagues saying the bill rewards lawbreakers and fails to secure the border. “Americans expect their government to end the lawlessness, not surrender to it,” they wrote.

Many lawmakers and their staffs are still sifting through the 800-page bill and have not voiced support or disapproval. There are several to watch. One is Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander, who has been meeting with the president and other senators (including Democrats) on budget issues and has expressed concern about problems with the current immigration system. Libertarian-leaning Rand Paul of Kentucky, a possible 2016 presidential contender, has expressed openness to a comprehensive bill. Utah’s Orrin Hatch helped pass the bill out of committee, but that doesn't necessarily mean he will support the final version.

South Carolina Republican Tim Scott, a newcomer to the Senate, is also still weighing his options; his state colleague Graham helped write the bill and has been campaigning for it in their state, but Scott’s predecessor, conservative think tank head Jim DeMint, is leading the outside charge against it. Members of the leadership team like John Thune (South Dakota), Roy Blunt (Missouri) and Jerry Moran (Kansas) will also bear watching.

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has applauded Rubio in the past, said he will not block debate on the bill. Eyes will of course be on Rubio himself, since he has expressed concerns about his own legislation. Conversely, Democrat Bob Menendez, another sponsor of the measure, will be closely watched to gauge whether liberals are still on board with border security changes. And, as with every big vote this Congress, the spotlight will fall on red-state Democrats too, including Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mark Begich of Alaska, and Kay Hagan of North Carolina.

If the Senate does pass a bill, how will the House respond?

Speaker John Boehner says his chamber would not take up the Senate bill as written, but instead would work on its own version. A House bipartisan group has been focused on legislation for years, but is continually on the verge of collapse. Last week, Republican Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho, among the most conservative members of his conference, left the group over a disagreement about access to health care for illegal immigrants. Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte said he would like to see a step-by-step approach to reform and that one large bill is unlikely to come out of his committee.

The House could pass a series of small measures to address the various issues, then could conference on the Senate bill and arrive at some kind of final product. If they are unable to reach agreement on their own legislation, Boehner could bring the Senate bill to the floor for a vote, but that would require big help from Democrats. Boehner has been criticized by his members for doing this in the past.

Last week, the GOP-controlled House passed a bill stopping an executive order by the president that deferred deportations of illegal immigrants’ children. The legislation, an amendment to a DHS spending bill, was sponsored by Iowa Rep. Steve King, a staunch opponent of reform efforts. The vote fell mostly along party lines and stands little chance in the Senate, but it signaled the difficulties immigration legislation faces in the lower chamber. 

What happens if Congress doesn’t enact reform this time?

Proponents of reform want to get the bill passed out of both chambers by the end of the year, before midterm politics kick in and complicate the chances of passage. Lawmakers could return to it at the beginning of 2014, but they risk it becoming a campaign issue. Republicans may decide to wait until after the midterms if they think they can gain a majority in the Senate and keep their majority in the House, thus helping them push through a more conservative bill. But Democrats would likely cite the failure of reform to beat up on Republicans in the elections. Obama would likely use his bully pulpit and blame the GOP. Floor speeches putting lawmakers on record would likely be used in campaign ads.

Completing anything during a midterm year is difficult, as every vote is in the spotlight and majority dynamics could shift. Also by then, any momentum now propelling the bill would probably have waned. 

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Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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