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Congress

On Immigration, Celebrating a Job Half-Done

Sen. Chuck Schumer (center), D-N.Y., and members of the Senate's bipartisan "Gang of Eight" who crafted the immigration reform bill leave the Senate floor after final passage on Thursday, June 27, 2013.(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

photo of Ben Terris
June 27, 2013

It had all the optics of a truly historic day. Vice President Joe Biden presided over the Senate vote that would reform the country's broken immigration system and help provide a path to citizenship for 11 million people living here illegally. The gallery was full, including dozens of young Hispanic men and women wearing blue and orange shirts with slogans such as  "11 Million Dreamers."

And yet, when Biden gaveled in the final vote, there was just a smattering of applause. The crowd mustered a chant of "Yes we can!" before being told to be quiet by Biden, and everyone walked out of the galleries. As big a deal as this vote was—and by modern Senate standards it was quite an accomplishment—the day's celebration is very much tempered by the chaos that lies ahead.

With the Republicans in the House having already labeled the bill dead on arrival, it was difficult for the Senate to believably celebrate its achievement. When six members of the "Gang of Eight" held a press conference after the vote, it felt a bit like a baseball team celebrating getting to the World Series without knowing for sure if it was going to be playing anyone.

 

But that didn't stop the senators from lavishing praise on one another (the press conference began with a literal back slap laid on Sen. John McCain from Sen. Chuck Schumer). "We all gave. We all took. We all fought. We all smiled. And at the end of the day we held hands and walked out here together," Schumer said. And at the end of the press conference, he walked arm-in-arm with McCain, very aware that a group of a half-dozen photographers were snapping their photos. For posterity. Or something.

That image of bipartisan unity is not an accident. For comprehensive immigration reform to have a chance, the Senate needs to make the House feel like it has unstoppable momentum behind it. But as much as the 68 senators who supported the bill would like it to look like there was near-unanimous consent, that was not the case.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, for example, spent part of his day in a Senate office building rotunda, a tall blond woman from the Tea Party News Network towering over him with her arm around his shoulder.

"Sorry that took so long, I could just talk to you all day," the interviewer told Sessions with a laugh. The Alabaman has become the face of the GOP objection to the Senate bill, telling almost anybody who will ask what he thinks is wrong with it (well, almost anybody. After talking to TPNN, he refused an interview with Telemundo, the Spanish-language channel). Update: Sessions's office tells me that later in the day he returned for an interview. Here is the link.

"This bill is just made up of poll-tested talking points," Sessions told me as he walked toward his office. "As legislation, it's not nearly effective enough. A bill is not what the talking points say it is, it's what's in it."

This line of thinking, the idea that the border needs to be made more secure ahead of anything else, puts him in line with much of the thinking in the House of Representatives.

"You want to know if this is a historic vote or not?" Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., said standing outside in the rain on his way to his office after a press conference. "That depends on what House leadership does with the responsibility they've been given. If they produce a bipartisan bill, and if Boehner were to allow it on the floor, then this day could be looked at as historic."

"If"was the operative word there.

"I just wish now I could go over to the House for a few months and work this out over there," said Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, a Republican member of the Gang, and recent defector from the House.

Despite the bill's shaky prospects, don't try to tell the senators who supported the bill they didn't do something momentous. When McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham came out of the Senate subway on their way to a morning vote, they were greeted like celebrities.

"Immigration reporters, swarm!" shouted David Grant, a reporter for the Christian Science Monitor—much to the chagrin of harried Senate staffers who urged the crowd to "make a lane."

"That's the opposite of what we want to do," Grant told me. "We're looking to make a barricade."

Everywhere Graham went, reporters clustered around him. But with plenty of talking points in his pocket ("Self-deportation as a Republican policy is in our rear-view mirror"), he was ready for it.

When I caught up with him after he escaped from the crowd, he had a little bit of spittle stuck on the side of his mouth from talking so much, but he was smiling. "I get underwhelmed a lot, it's not very often that I get overwhelmed," he said. "It's a big day that shows the Senate is back in business."

Sen. Rob Portman, the Ohio Republican, was one of the only question marks going into the day's vote. Running out of his office to get to a meeting he says, "I've been late to everything all day. I've got too much going on."

Portman couldn't share in the (temporary) victory. He voted against the bill after his amendment failed.

"I definitely don't think my constituents think of me as all-powerful," he lamented. "It's a frustrating job."

In the midst of a day of high-fiving and backslapping, I asked Mo Cowan, who is finishing up tenure as the fill-in senator from Massachusetts, what it was like going out on such a historic vote.

"Which vote are you talking about?" he replied. "Oh, immigration! I thought you were talking about the Anthony Foxx confirmation."

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