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Key milestone reached advancing immigration bill in Senate

Updated Monday, June 24, 2013 | 4:29 p.m.

It was relatively quiet around the Senate chamber Monday evening, an atmosphere that belied the stakes as senators took their chamber’s most pivotal immigration vote yet.

Fifteen minutes into the vote on a sweeping border security amendment to the comprehensive immigration reform legislation, it was clear senators had secured the 60 votes they would need to carry the measure, which would double the amount of fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border and the number of border security agents in service, make verification for work eligibility mandatory, and step up scrutiny and reduce wait times at airports and seaports.

But 70 is the new 60 – at least as far as this immigration amendment goes.

The Senate came close Monday night, securing 67 votes for the amendment that has come to be known as the “border surge.”

For the Gang of Eight that authored the immigration bill, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and the authors of the amendment, a regular filibuster-proof vote margin would have been too-close a call, sending a message that the Senate remained divided on the ultimate goal of passing comprehensive immigration reform.

There are no guarantees that every senator who votes for an unprecedentedly broad border security amendment will also vote for an overall immigration bill that includes new visa categories and a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented immigrants later this week.

And if the Senate is seen as scrambling for votes on immigration reform, proponents send a much less forceful message to the House of Representatives that it is time to follow the Senate’s lead.

Though more than a dozen Republicans chose to follow the lead of Republicans in the Gang of 8 and Sens. Bob Corker and John Hoeven, who wrote Monday’s “border surge” amendment, there remained a cadre of Republican senators — including every member of the Republican Senate leadership team — staunchly opposed to both immigration reform and the border security amendment.

“This bill has no teeth,” Sen. Tom Coburn complained on the Senate floor shortly before the vote. “It has $48 billion thrown up against a wall to buy the votes.”

Others charged that they were being asked to vote on too much too soon.

“We have seen this play before, it is reminiscent of Obamacare,” Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said Monday before the vote. “Fundamentally this is about political cover. It’s not about solving the problem.”

The increased security measures outlined under the border surge amendment, which was finalized on Friday, do drive up the overall cost of comprehensive immigration reform.

But proponents have some cover. An estimate from the Congressional Budget Office determined last week that the bill in its original form would save the government $197 billion over the first ten years, and about $700 billion in the ten years thereafter. The increased cost of the border security provisions does not upset that balance.

“The CBO report was a game-changer,” Gang of Eight Democrat Sen. Charles Schumer said Monday, surmising that any Republican who voted no on the immigration amendment “just won’t take ‘yes’ for an answer.”

The border surge devotes more money and resources for border security than most measures raised by Republicans who have long been proponents of enforcement, but objected to the amendment. What the amendment does not do, however, is hinge pathways to citizenship on a verification procedure that rules the border secure enough -- once the benchmarks outlined in the amendment are reached, undocumented immigrants can be elevated from provisional to permanent residency.

“I know there are going to be folks that vote against the bill regardless of what it says,” Corker added on Monday. “This is an amendment that every Republican who cares about border security…should support.”

The Senate seemed poised to secure all of its Democrats for the border security amendment, and after 90 minutes of voting, had also won the support of 14 Republicans, including Nevada Sen. Dean Heller, who contributed to the amendment’s exit-entry monitoring provisions to reduce visa overstays.

Six senators never made it to the vote, due to flight delays, including Democratic Sens. Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Mark Udall of Colorado, both of whom are likely supporters; Georgia Republican Sens. Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson, who are potential supporters; and Republicans Mike Lee of Utah and Mike Enzi of Wyoming, likely opponents.

The Senate is expected to work on additional amendments throughout the week, with the goal of wrapping up work on the immigration bill before Congress’ Independence Day recess, which begins this weekend.

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