The Senate on Thursday approved comprehensive immigration reform that includes billions of dollars in additional funding for border security and a path to citizenship for 11 million illegal immigrants.
The afternoon vote culminated months of intense negotiations and debate over a package crafted by the so-called Gang of Eight — four Democrats and four Republicans — and was hailed as a historic accomplishment by the bill's supporters.
The reforms passed 68-32, with 14 Republicans joining the entire Democratic caucus to support the measure. House Republican leaders have said the package is dead on arrival in their chamber.
"It's tough," Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said of the compromise,"but it's fair, and above all, it's very practical."
"It's a historic moment," said Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., a member of the Gang of Eight. "There are few times that you can affect the lives of millions of people positively, and that's what this legislation does."
"The bipartisan bill that passed today was a compromise. By definition, nobody got everything they wanted. Not Democrats. Not Republicans. Not me," Obama said. "But the Senate bill is consistent with the key principles for commonsense reform that I – and many others – have repeatedly laid out."
"Today, the Senate did its job," he added. "It’s now up to the House to do the same."
Since coming to the Senate floor for debate more than two weeks ago, immigration reform has faced an uncertain fate. Support for the bill hovered just under the 60-vote threshold required to pass it.
But the so-called "border surge" amendment negotiated by Sens. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and John Hoeven, R-N.D., which would add 20,000 new agents on the border in addition to billions of dollars worth of new technology, was enough to assuage Republican concerns that security measures in the Gang of Eight bill were too weak. Additionally, the amendments of several other senators, on both sides of the aisle, were rolled into the Corker-Hoeven proposal to ensure support for immigration reform held.
A last-minute deal to allow votes on additional amendments fell through late Wednesday, putting in motion the schedule for Thursday's final vote. Reid and Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, who managed the floor debate for the Republicans, could not come to terms on which amendments — or how many — would be put up for a vote.
Under Senate rules, opponents of the legislation could have stretched the floor debate into Friday afternoon. Recognizing that more debate was unlikely to change the outcome, however, these Republican senators agreed to allow a vote Thursday afternoon, after which the chamber was scheduled to adjourn for the July 4 recess. One factor in this decision was confidence that the Republican controlled House would decline to approve the Senate bill as-is.
"A lot of flaws in it," said Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., who voted against the bill. "But it always bothered me — and I was in the House in '86 and voted against it then — that you're rewarding people who broke the law to come here."
Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, made clear on Thursday that the House would not take up the Senate immigration package, much less allow the legislation to be brought up for a floor vote.
Boehner, in his most unequivocal comments to the media since the immigration debate began on Capitol Hill earlier this year, said any immigration bill that gets a floor vote in the House must have the support of a majority of Republicans. Furthermore, Boehner said, he would apply that standard to any compromise immigration deal the House and Senate might negotiate in a conference committee.
"The House is not going to take up and vote on whatever the Senate passes," Boehner said Thursday. "We're going to do our own bill, through regular order, and it'll be legislation that reflects the will of our [GOP] majority and the will of the American people. For any legislation — including a conference report — to pass the House, it's going to have to be a bill that has the support of a majority of our members."
To underscore the significance of the vote, Reid required senators to be seated at their desks when votes were cast, a formality he reserves on key votes, like Obama's health care reforms.