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Immigration bill advances in Senate; border ‘surge’ amendment exposes GOP rift

- The Washington Times - Monday, June 24, 2013

Senators voted Monday to add 20,000 more Border Patrol agents to the southwestern border and require a total of 700 miles of fencing within a decade, clearing the way for the broad immigration bill to pass the chamber this week — but opening deep divisions within the Republican Party.

In the 67-27 vote, 15 Republicans joined Democrats in backing the manpower and infrastructure, but the other Senate Republicans balked, saying the enhancements were chimerical and shouldn't be used to cover over what they argued was a bad bill that doesn't do enough to enforce the laws and stop another wave of illegal immigration.

"I don't know how any Republican who supports border security can vote against this," said Sen. Bob Corker, the Tennessee Republican who helped write what he called a border "surge."

"Easy," Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, said to him moments later as the two men had a stern face-to-face talk on the floor. "The answer is to get real border security."

The fight over the amendment — and the two senators' words — underscore the broader battle over immigration. All sides say they want this legalization to be the last for the U.S. and that they want to boost enforcement to prevent a third wave of illegal entries.

But they disagree on whether this plan gets there.

The vote signals the beginning of the end of the Senate immigration debate.

Because the vote was on a 1,200-page amendment that included all of the original bill, the 67-27 tally shows the full measure probably has sufficient support to pass.

Until Monday, the two-week debate lacked any major action.

Although more than 450 amendments were filed, the Senate held votes on just 13 of them. The vote on strengthening the border was the only major change to pass.

Earlier Monday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, filed several procedural motions to force final filibuster votes Wednesday that would keep him on schedule to pass the bill out before lawmakers leave at the end of the week for a weeklong July Fourth vacation.

The chamber has not considered any amendments from Democrats to alter the number of guest workers, or to constrict gun rights, expand gay rights or provide better protections to illegal immigrants who would be caught.

Sen. Marco Rubio, a key Florida Republican, has signaled that he is trying to win amendments dealing with how many criminal violations an illegal immigrant can have and still be eligible for legalization, and raising the bar on the kinds of English language skills someone must demonstrate to earn legal status.

"There is simply no reason we need to end this debate now in order to meet some artificial deadline determined by the majority leader's summer schedule," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican.

But a large chunk of his own members might desert him and vote to move the bill along on the Democrats' schedule.

Reid spokesman Adam Jentlesen said many of the amendments awaiting votes are from lawmakers who have no intention of supporting the final bill anyway.

He blamed Republicans for refusing to allow votes on Democratic amendments, which has led to a virtual stalemate on the floor.

If the bill does clear the Senate this week, it faces a tougher time in the House, where Republicans run the chamber and are moving ahead with piecemeal bills that would toughen enforcement, create more guest-worker slots and try to boost legal immigration for those who graduate from U.S. universities with advanced technology or science degrees.

The Senate bill's enforcement is less strict, and senators also included a pathway to citizenship for more than 7 million of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants now in the U.S.

Democrats have said granting illegal immigrants the chance at citizenship is not negotiable and that the path cannot be tied to performance or decisions.

The compromise on border security was intended to increase spending in a way that would prevent more illegal immigration.

Late Monday, the Congressional Budget Office released a rough preliminary analysis that said the added manpower would reduce illegal immigration further than the original bill, though it could not say by how much. The initial bill was projected to reduce illegal immigration by 25 percent.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, the New York Democrat who has led the immigration negotiations, said he was shocked that any Republicans would vote against additional border security after arguing for years that it was a prerequisite to immigration reform.

"They just won't take yes for an answer," he said.

But Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican, said his colleagues were being snookered.

"Fundamentally, this is about political cover. It's not about solving the problem," Mr. Cruz said.

All of the Democrats who were in the chamber Monday voted for the amendment — braving pressure from immigrant rights groups that said the border surge amounted to an unneeded "militarization" that would lead to more migrant deaths in the desert.

"This amendment is based on the false notion that our border is not secure or there hasn't been adequate enforcement up to this point. The pain in our communities, the deportations and the empirical evidence prove otherwise," said Evelyn Rivera, an illegal immigrant who has been granted tentative legal status under President Obama's nondeportation policies.

The Republicans who voted for the additional Border Patrol agents and fencing were: Sens. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Jeff Chiesa of New Jersey, Susan M. Collins of Maine, Mr. Corker, Jeff Flake of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, John Hoeven of North Dakota, Mark Kirk of Illinois, John McCain of Arizona, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Mr. Rubio and Roger F. Wicker of Mississippi.

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