WASHINGTON -- An amendment to add significant border security requirements to an already sweeping comprehensive immigration bill passed a test vote in the Senate on Monday, putting the full legislation on track for passage later this week.
The final vote tally was 67 to 27, with 15 Republicans voting in favor. Several senators, including at least two likely to support the amendment, missed the vote entirely due to travel delays and other issues.
Although not every Republican who voted for the amendment has committed to voting for the final bill, the step sounded a positive note for the legislation's authors, who are aiming to win over additional GOP supporters.
Republicans who voted for the amendment included Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), Kelly Ayotte (N.H.), Jeff Chiesa (N.J.), Susan Collins (Maine), Bob Corker (Tenn.), Jeff Flake (Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), John Hoeven (N.D.), Orrin Hatch (Utah), Dean Heller (Nev.), Mark Kirk (Ill.), John McCain (Ariz.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Roger Wicker (Miss.). Wicker said although he voted for moving forward with the amendment, he is still likely to vote against final passage of the bill.
The amendment will go for final approval on Wednesday, with a vote expected later this week on the full immigration reform bill from the bipartisan "gang of eight." The group of senators drafted the legislation to strengthen border security, streamline legal immigration, discourage illegal immigration and provide a path to citizenship to undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States.
Whether the bill stands a chance in the House largely depends on the level of GOP support in the Senate, but even with a strong majority it's unclear whether the legislation will be brought up at all in the lower chamber.
The border security amendment is largely based on language from Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and John Hoeven (R-N.D.) and would create five additional steps to be taken on border security before undocumented immigrants could move from provisional status to legal permanent residency, no sooner than 10 years after the bill's passage. It would require 20,000 additional border patrol agents to be hired and placed, and 700 miles of double-layered fence along the U.S.-Mexico border. Businesses nationwide would be required to use E-Verify, a system to check whether a would-be employee is legally allowed to work in the United States. The government would have to implement an entry-exit system at additional airports and sea ports, and put more funding into technology to monitor the border.
The amendment's cost was considered more feasible after the Congressional Budget Office released a report last week that the bill, as written, would shrink the deficit by $197 billion over the next decade and $700 billion during the 10 years that followed. The CBO released a second report on Monday with some analysis of the Corker-Hoeven amendment, predicting it would lead to a decrease in unathorized immigration and would still reduce the deficit over the next decade, although by up to $40 billion less than under the original bill.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) filed for cloture earlier Monday, but Corker told reporters Monday evening that the Senate may consider 20 additional amendments -- 10 for each party -- if a deal can be reached. Other non-border-related measures were added to the Corker-Hoeven amendment for that purpose, including the creation of a $1.5 billion program proposed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to help states and localities find jobs for 16- to 24-year-olds. Two measures from Hatch were also included to address benefits for undocumented immigrants.
There are still amendments to the bill coming in, such as one from Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) that would change the E-Verify system for employers to check a would-be hire's legal status, but it's unclear if they will be added. Hoeven told reporters that he expects adding the Portman amendment would convince a few additional Republicans to support the final bill, including Portman himself, who voted against moving forward with the Corker-Hoeven amendment.
While some Republicans' worries about the bill have been assuaged by the Corker-Hoeven amendment, others argue it makes the bill even worse. Sens. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), David Vitter (R-La.), Mike Lee (R-Utah), Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) held a press conference last week to discuss their opposition, saying it throws money at the problem but does not fix it. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who pushed for a separate border security amendment that was voted down last week, also said the measure was insufficient.
"This is about political cover," Cruz said on the Senate floor. "It's not about solving the problem."
Outside organizations such as the Immigration and Customs Enforcement employee union and Numbers USA, a group that opposes legalization and increasing immigration levels, also voiced opposition to the amendment.
The measure received a boost, however, from Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R), who signed into law one of the toughest immigration bills in the nation in 2010. Brewer said the border security provisions in the amendment are "a victory" for her state.
While some Democrats and pro-immigration reform groups have said the amendment's border spending is unnecessary, most have also said it's worth it if it gets the bill across the finish line. The White House announced its support for the amendment on Friday, which press secretary Jay Carney reiterated in a briefing earlier Monday.
"We want progress in both houses," Carney said. "We have seen substantial progress in the Senate and consider the agreement that was reached on border security to be a very positive breakthrough in the bipartisan effort toward common-sense immigration reform and comprehensive immigration reform in the Senate."
This is a developing story and has been updated.