- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The immigration bill survived a major filibuster test Wednesday in a 67-31 vote that signals the measure is on a speedy path out of the Senate this week while underscoring just how far the bill has come since the last debate in 2007.

Six years ago, the immigration bill failed in a dramatic filibuster when a bipartisan majority joined together to block the bill, which received just 45 votes of support.

On Wednesday, though, all 54 members of the Democratic caucus, joined by 13 members of the GOP, backed the bill — an increase of 22 votes’ worth of support.

“It is obvious a majority, a very large majority, a bipartisan majority of the Senate will support the immigration bill,” said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, after the test vote.

Final passage could come Thursday or Friday as Democrats try to clear the bill before sending senators home for a weeklong July Fourth vacation.

So far, the bill’s authors have done an effective job of defending the core of the legislation, which offers quick legal status to illegal immigrants but withholds citizenship rights until after the government has spent more money on border security and has created a mandatory electronic worker verification system.

The bipartisan “Gang of Eight” senators — four Democrats and four Republicans who wrote the bill — have managed to win over nine other Republicans while keeping the support of every Democrat in the chamber by giving only slightly on border security.

“There’s this unprecedented Democratic unity in favor of reform,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, an immigrant-rights advocacy group, who said this year’s debate shows how much the issue has shifted.

“It feels so different,” he said. “In 2007 we were so clearly on the defensive and then the longer the bill hung out there it lost oxygen. This time around, the Democrats are feeling more and more certain, the Republicans are more divided. Honestly, whatever happens to the legislation, the politics of immigration reform have been transformed in the last six months.”

The vote numbers bear that out.

Of the 22 additional votes of support for this year’s bill, seven came from new members who have been elected to seats previously held by opponents to reform legislation. But the bigger change has been the 15 senators who have changed their minds since 2007.

That includes five Republicans, nine Democrats and one independent, Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont.

One of those switchers is Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, a Utah Republican who voted against the 1986 amnesty and the 2007 bill, but is eager to support this year’s legislation.

He said he still sees major problems with the bill, and is counting on the House to fix them should the GOP take up a bill in that chamber, but he said the bill is a major improvement over current policies which don’t enforce immigration laws and don’t track visitors as they enter and exit the country.

He offered an amendment in the Judiciary Committee that would begin to track visitors at busy international airports.

“Trust me, this is more than a fig leaf,” Mr. Hatch said.

Rosemary Jenks, who has tracked immigration for years as government relations manager for NumbersUSA, said part of the difference this year is Democrats who are retiring and won’t have to face voters again.

“Some of them are retiring, which makes a big difference, like [Montana Sen. Max] Baucus. The others clearly don’t believe their constituents won’t hold them accountable for a vote like this,” Ms. Jenks said.

She said she was surprised at some of the other vote-switchers who said the 2007 bill was bad but are willing to embrace this year’s legislation. Ms. Jenks said that flies in the face of evidence from the Congressional Budget Office that this year’s bill is worse for workers in that it will drive down wages and boost unemployment in the near term.

And Ms. Jenks said senators who aren’t up for re-election for five more years and who think voters will have moved beyond this vote by then are mistaken. Already, her group is running ads in North Dakota and Tennessee asking if there are any Republicans who might want to run against Sens. John Hoeven and Bob Corker, the two lawmakers who helped boost the bill by adding Border Patrol agents.

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