Senate Passes Immigration Reform Bill

The Senate gave final approval to a massive immigration overhaul that spends billions on border security, increases the number of legal immigrants and also creates a path to citizenship for the 11 million people who entered illegally.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

After weeks of heated debate, the United States Senate has approved the biggest revamp of immigration policy in a generation. Fourteen Republicans joined the entire Democratic caucus in passing the immigration bill, 68 to 32. But beyond the Senate, the bill's fate is highly uncertain. Republicans, who control the House of Representatives, don't seem too interested in even taking it up.

NPR's David Welna is at the Capitol and joins us. And, David, you watched that final vote on this bill on the Senate chamber. What was it like?

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Well, Audie, it was quite a formal affair. Usually, during votes, senators mill about in the well of the Senate, but today they were ordered by Majority Leader Harry Reid to be seated at their desks. And just as when the Senate voted on the health care bill, Vice President Biden presided as each senator rose to cast his or her vote.

The only votes against the bill came from 32 Republicans, and one of them, Jerry Moran of Kansas, initially voted in favor of this immigration bill by mistake and then quickly amended that vote to a nay amidst a lot of laughter. And when Biden announced the results of the roll call, cheers erupted in the Senate gallery, along with shouts of, yes, we can.

CORNISH: So this immigration bill started out as the work of a bipartisan group, the so-called Gang of Eight, and it ended up today getting close to the 70 votes they had hoped for. How do we get that kind of result in a Senate that's been so partisan?

WELNA: Well, you know, this immigration bill is a rare convergence of interests held by both parties. Some Republicans wanted the bill not just because they saw it as being good for business, but also because they saw passing such a bill as a way to stop further alienating Latino and Asian voters who voted massively to re-elect President Obama. And Democrats have always wanted to get the millions of immigrants who are here illegally to, as they put it, come out of the shadows and become legal workers and eventually voters as well.

So the Gang of Eight worked out a big compromise that has essentially held together. And despite a lot of attempts to alter it by those opposed to the bill, New York Democrat Charles Schumer led the effort to bring the bill to the finish line in the Senate.

SENATOR CHARLES SCHUMER: It will prevent future waves of illegal immigration, it will provide a tremendous boost for the American economy by rationalizing future legal immigration, and it will fairly and conclusively address the status of people currently here illegally.

CORNISH: So, David, how much of that statement is being challenged by the bill's opponents?

WELNA: Virtually every word you just heard from Schumer is being challenged by opponents. They say there's no assurance this bill will prevent future waves of illegal immigration. They predict its costs will outweigh its benefits, and they're very much opposed to granting legal status to those here illegally before the border is secured. They point to the last big immigration bill of 1986, which granted amnesty to more than three million immigrants as having failed to secure the border, and they say this bill has the same flaws.

CORNISH: So, of course, this has to go to the House next, but what's expected to happen there?

WELNA: Well, the bill is sent to the House for its consideration, and Senate backers hope the big vote that the bill got today will persuade the House Republican leadership to take it up and pass it. But House Speaker John Boehner made it clear today that the Senate bill is effectively dead on arrival, at least in the House.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER: The House is not going to take up and vote on whatever the Senate passes. We're going to do our own bill through regular order, and it'll be legislation that reflects the will of our majority and the will of the American people.

WELNA: Boehner did not make it very clear just what the House is going to do, and it may be because he simply doesn't know what's next. He says House Republicans will go out to their districts for the Fourth of July recess to hear from their constituents and then come back and discuss immigration at a July 10th meeting of Republicans only.

The House could take up some piecemeal immigration that's passed in committee that's focused on enforcement and has no path to citizenship. And that would have to be reconciled with the Senate's bill, and the final product would have to pass both chambers to become law. It looks like this legislation is still a long way from being out of the woods, especially when you consider that we have the debt ceiling and a possible government shutdown awaiting Congress after the August recess.

CORNISH: That's NPR's congressional correspondent David Welna at the Capitol. David, thank you.

WELNA: You're welcome, Audie.

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