Chuck Schumer is predicting the Senate will overwhelmingly pass comprehensive immigration reform before July 4. Marco Rubio says the bill doesn’t even have the 60 votes it needs to pass.
And as of today, Rubio’s right.
Granted, the Senate overwhelmingly voted Tuesday to begin debating the Gang of Eight’s immigration overhaul – 84-15. But that was expected, and it’s just the start. There is nowhere near as much agreement on the reform bill itself.
Sen. Schumer’s rosy predictions assume that all the hurdles will work themselves out over the next few weeks of debate—and that’s a big bet, given the magnitude of the divide that has emerged not only between Democrats and Republicans, but inside the gang as well, particularly on border control.
Senate Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid hesitated Tuesday to talk numbers—a clear sign that Democrats know they don’t have the votes. “I want to have a bill that adheres to our principles and gets as many votes as we can. I’m not going to be talking about specific numbers,” Reid said.
The biggest issue splitting the parties right now is how best to secure the border, and the fight is getting nasty, quick. Other potential land mines include how the Senate decides what tax, health care, and other benefits immigrants may enjoy.
John Cornyn, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, has an amendment – backed by many of his Republican colleagues – that would require a highly secured border before people in the country illegally could start down a pathway to citizenship.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell called the provision “the key amendment to put us in a position where we can actually look at the American people with a straight face and say we are going to secure the border. That's going to be a very, very important amendment.”
And Republicans are beginning to condition their support for the whole immigration package on Democrats’ agreement to include Cornyn’s amendment.
“If it goes down, the whole thing’s in jeopardy. If the Cornyn amendment passes, [reform] has a much better chance of getting across the finish line,” said a top GOP aide, adding that the provision is important because of Cornyn’s leadership position and credibility as a Republican up for reelection next year in a border state.
Republicans think they have the upper hand—and the leverage—because, they argue, Democrats have simply overestimated how much pressure the GOP is under to play ball on immigration reform. “Republicans will support this bill if they think it’s good policy, but they’re not going to support it out of political necessity,” a GOP Senate aide said.
Cornyn knows how much leverage he wields. “If [Democrats] had 60 votes to pass the bill out of the Senate, they probably wouldn’t be talking to me. But they are, which tells me that they view this as a way to get the kind of support out of the Senate, on a bipartisan basis, that would give it some momentum and increase the likelihood of the bill passing in the House,” Cornyn said.
Reid has called Cornyn’s amendment “a poison pill,” a charge not easily walked back.
But without Cornyn's proposal—or another Republican-friendly border-security alternative—added to the bill, Reid and Schumer will fail to get 60, much less 70.