WASHINGTON — A landmark bill to overhaul the immigration system passed the Senate on Thursday, winning a large majority as its sponsors had hoped, but showing no signs of gaining ground with the Republican majority in the House.
Supporters hailed the bipartisan bill as a historic achievement. President Obama called it “common-sense reform” and urged the House to take it up. “We have a unique opportunity to fix our broken system in a way that upholds our traditions as a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants,” he said. “We just need Congress to finish the job.”
Many conservative Republicans deride the bill’s central element — a path to citizenship for the 11 million people in the country without legal status — as “amnesty.” Many represent districts with few minority voters and have little familiarity with the complexities of immigration law. They are drafting their own legislation, unswayed by the Senate’s hard-fought compromise.
The bill passed, 68 to 32, with significant GOP backing, but the momentum the bill’s authors sought has stalled. Backers failed to reach the hoped-for 70 votes despite the late addition of a $46-billion border security package to win over Republicans.
In 2006, the Senate also passed a major immigration bill, only to see it die in the House. This year’s bill passed with six more votes. More important, the bill comes against a backdrop of growing Latino political power. The key question will be how much pressure Republicans who want to improve their party’s standing with Latinos can put on colleagues.
Some GOP leaders, including Rep. Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, have publicly nudged lawmakers to act, arguing that reform would be good for the country, the economy and the party.
“We must solve this problem once and for all or it will only get worse,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a potential 2016 presidential hopeful and a leader of the Senate effort. “And it will only get harder to solve.”
But an influential House Republican, Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho, said this week there was no rush to act. He expects the House to approve legislation by year’s end. “The American people aren’t clamoring for a path to citizenship,” he said. “We can’t run around scared thinking that we have to do something.”
Those conflicting views describe the dilemma confronting House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), who has given mixed signals about his willingness to compromise with Democrats on the overhaul. Boehner has increasingly deferred to the hard-right faction of his majority, some of whom have threatened to boot him from the speakership. They say bills must have support from a majority of House Republicans before coming to the floor.
Boehner must decide whether to pursue a compromise with Democrats that could give his party a boost with Latino voters in 2016 and potentially cost him his job, or hold fast to the wishes of his conservative majority, some of whom fear that they could face primary challenges from the right next year.
“I have made it clear since the day after the election that I thought this political football should stop and that the Congress should deal with this issue,” Boehner said Thursday. “It’s not easy. If it were easy, it would have been fixed a long time ago. But I do think the House and the Senate have to act, and I’m trying to do everything I can to help make sure that we act.”
For now, he is expected to give conservatives wide latitude to bring a series of tough-on-enforcement bills to the floor for votes, even as he privately continues to press a bipartisan House group to write a broader compromise, according to those familiar with the negotiations.
To test whether Republicans might be more willing to consider a citizenship path for immigrants now here illegally, some in the party are preparing bills along those lines.
One may provide citizenship opportunities for young people who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children, similar to the Dream Act provision in the Senate bill, giving them a quicker path to citizenship if they go into the military or attend college. Other bills might provide a citizenship path to veterans’ spouses or other select immigrants.
“Many members, including myself, are open to some kind of earned path to a lawful status that, to many, would result in earned citizenship. Not all,” said Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), a moderate.
The Senate legislation represents a rare bipartisan achievement for a Congress that has been divided along partisan lines. Fourteen Republican senators joined all Democrats in the effort to provide the 13-year path to citizenship, alongside the $46-billion build-up of force along the U.S.-Mexico border.
The solemnity of the vote was underscored as senators, seated rather than milling about as usual, rose one by one to vote. Vice President Joe Biden presided, and several House members came to watch. The galleries were packed with observers, including young immigrants who came as children and who have been vocal in pushing for the bill. After the vote, shouts of “Yes, we can!” broke out in the crowd.
Critics on one side of the issue deride the legalization path as “amnesty”‘ those on the other call the border-security plan an unnecessary militarization of U.S. communities.
Top GOP leaders in the Senate voted against it. “If you can’t be reasonably certain that the border is secure as a condition of legalization, there’s just no way to be sure that millions more won’t follow the illegal immigrants who are already here,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
The Mexican government hailed the Senate’s action, saying in a statement that the legislation would improve the lives of Mexicans in the U.S. and create more “respect for their rights.”
The legislation was the product of hard-fought agreements by powerful players in Washington, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the AFL-CIO and advocates for immigrants.
Immigrants who lack legal status could become permanent legal residents with green cards in 10 years, once the border had been bolstered with 24-hour drones, 20,000 new Border Patrol officers and 700 miles of fence, among other measures. They must also pay fines and fees, learn English and pass background checks.
Because 40% of the immigrants without legal status did not sneak across the border but overstayed their visas, a new visa exit system would be required at major airports to track them.
The legislation would substantially overhaul the nation’s long-standing preference for family members who want to join immigrants living here. Under the new system, more preference is given to workers. A new guest-worker program for low-skilled maids, gardeners and others would be launched, and more visas would be available for highly skilled workers. All employers would need to verify the legal status of new hires.
“When something comes from the Senate with a big vote, and it’s an important issue like this one, it’s tough to ignore,” said Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), a former House member who helped negotiate the Senate bill. “There’s something psychological about something coming with 65-plus votes. I don’t think it’s D.O.A. at all.”
House Republicans plan to meet July 10 to discuss immigration reform, making it unlikely the chamber could reach a compromise with the Senate, where Democrats have the majority, before the August recess.
Once lawmakers return after Labor Day, Congress is expected to resume the budget battles. The debt limit will need to be raised to allow the nation to continue paying its bills, and funding will need to be approved to keep the government running after Sept. 30.
But advocates for the immigration overhaul intend to keep up the pressure.
Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice Education Fund, promised a relentless campaign focused on House Republicans in the weeks to come.
“Do they have any idea what is about to happen?” he said. “It’s a political moment of truth for the House GOP and the Republican Party writ large.”
Richard Fausset in Mexico City contributed to this report.