WASHINGTON -- The Senate voted down amendments on Tuesday to significantly expand border fencing and biometric systems to check entries into the United States, two Republican-proposed measures that could up the cost of comprehensive immigration reform and delay a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
The border amendment proposed by Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) failed 39-54, with "nay" votes coming from the entire "gang of eight" -- which includes Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who famously said in a 2010 ad that the government should "complete the danged fence," and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who has called for more border protections in his own bill.
The amendments were among the first to receive votes since the bipartisan bill passed votes last week to move forward to debate. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Tuesday that he plans to file for a final vote by Monday, with the goal of passing the bill by the July 4 recess.
Thune and David Vitter (R-La.) offered the two amendments voted down Tuesday, while more narrowly-focused amendments from Democratic Sens. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.) passed.
Thune's amendment was most emblematic of the biggest fight over the comprehensive immigration reform bill: whether it should strengthen its border security requirements in an attempt to win over more Republican voters.
His amendment would delay a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants until the government completed 700 miles of double-layered fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border, an expensive endeavor that opponents said was too drastic. Under the amendment, undocumented immigrants would not gain even provisional status until 350 miles of the fence were completed. The measure would also take a large chunk of the money that the bill would appropriate for southern border security, leaving less for technology and other measures experts say are a better use of the funds.
McCain argued that the border is best secured with a combination of strategies, and noted the gang of eight bill already requires fencing -- though without dictating exactly how much should be built -- and allows border patrol to determine the best approach.
"Fencing is important," McCain said on the House floor a few hours before the vote. "Surveillance is more important."
Rubio released a statement after the vote saying he supports the idea for a fence, but opposed Thune's proposal due to his lack of specificity.
“[H]is amendment does not detail a specific border plan," Rubio said. "Therefore, I opposed his amendment and instead continue to work with my Republican colleagues to arrive at a new measure that improves on the significant border security measures already in the bill."
Vitter's amendment, which failed 36-58, was also criticized as far too costly and likely to delay a path to citizenship. He proposed requiring full implementation of the U.S.-VISIT system at all airports, sea ports and other points of entry, requiring them to take biometric information when foreigners entered the country to help ensure they leave when required. It's an expensive endeavor that the government has tried to implement in the past, without success.
Democratic amendments passed easily. Landrieu's measure to automatically grant citizenship to children adopted from abroad by U.S. citizens passed on a voice vote. It would end a requirement currently in place that parents visit their child's native country ahead of giving citizenship to the adoptee.
Tester's amendment would include tribal government officials in a border oversight task force that would be created in the immigration reform bill. It already includes a number of representatives of the border regions, such as governors of border states, residents and law enforcement. The amendment passed 94-0.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), despite voting for the amendment, said fellow senators should note that the border task force doesn't counteract the other problems he has with the gang of eight bill.
"This amendment doesn't fundamentally change the bill," he said. "There is really no opposition to making sure that the tribes have a voice in policy. Of course, this task force doesn't have any real power. ... While the amendment is noncontroversial, members should know this task force is a fig leaf for actual border security."