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October 21, 2017

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Immigration bill heads to hostile House of Representatives

The Senate never would have received 68 votes for immigration reform, the so-called Gang of 8 members testified last week, if not for a sweeping border security amendment that buried Republican jitters in miles of fencing and tens of thousands of border troops.

But a look at the list of 14 Republicans who voted for immigration reform Thursday afternoon begs the question: Did they really need to go so far to secure the 60 votes the bill needed to pass? Wouldn't tried-and-true social moderates, such as Maine Sen. Susan Collins, or senators from immigrant-rich states, like Nevada's Sen. Dean Heller, have joined with their Gang of 8 colleagues for less?

Maybe. But the bill crafted in the Senate wasn't just about the Senate. It's also about delivering to the House of Representatives an offer they can't refuse.

The House predetermined weeks ago that they would reject the Senate bill, when Speaker John Boehner said he wouldn't force an immigration vote a majority of House Republicans wouldn't support.

In the absence of a viable bipartisan process in the House, Republicans on the Judiciary committee have been pushing ahead with pro-enforcement bills that eschew the Senate’s balance between border security and a pathway to citizenship.

To complete immigration reform, the House and Senate will have to come to agreement at some point in the legislative process. But convincing Boehner it is best to capitalize on the Senate's momentum now is no simple task.

The heavy-handed, expensive Senate border security amendment was designed to call the bluff of Republicans complaining that subpar enforcement was preventing their support for immigration reform.

The trade the amendment offered: More border security than you ever dreamed of, for promising immigrants in the country illegally a benchmark-guaranteed pathway to citizenship.

Fourteen Senate Republicans signed up. But the majority — including all members of leadership — did not.

That sets an uneasy precedent for the House, where Republicans tend to be even more skittish about pathways to citizenship for immigrants who arrived in America illegally.

Immigration supporters still believe they can win lawmakers like Nevada's Joe Heck, who has cast recent anti-immigration votes, but explains them as disputes with the Obama administration, not evidence he is against comprehensive immigration reform.

But it will be a delicate needle to thread.

"We want to carefully address this with our Republican brothers, respecting the equal role they play," Arizona Sen. John McCain, the leading Republican in the Senate's Gang of 8, said cautiously after Thursday's successful Senate vote. He advised lobbyists to use "friendly persuasion" when urging House Republicans to take up legislation.

"I understand they might have a different approach," said Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, another Gang of 8 Republican. "Speak in a way you feel comfortable. Just don't ignore the issue, that's all I ask."

But with Senate momentum in hand and an eye on the encroaching 2014 election calendar, Democrats do not want to be as patient with their Republican colleagues. Many believe that given more time, House Republicans will simply find new ways to unravel and undercut the Senate bill.

"Now is the time for the House to act," Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., said after the Senate vote, challenging House Republican leaders to "not cater to a small minority of their party and move this landmark legislation as soon as possible."

"If the House stalls, families will continue to be torn apart," said Rep. Steven Horsford, D-Nev. "Doing nothing is not an option, and using a piecemeal process is insufficient."

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