A vote to legalize illegal aliens who have defied court deportation orders was the first sign the Senate’s contentious immigration bill would survive a slew of “deal killer” votes Wednesday and meet the Thursday cloture deadline promised by Majority Leader Harry Reid (D.-Nev.).
This decision came via an amendment vote to the White-House backed immigration bill that seeks to provide legal status to the approximately 12 to 20 million illegal aliens currently living in the United States.
The bellwether amendment, sponsored by Sen. John Cornyn (R.-Tex.), sought to deny felons legal status, including those who defied a deportation order from a U.S. judge, those who used fraudulent documents to obtain work and sex offenders.
Democrats said Cornyn’s amendment would gut the bill because up to half the illegal immigration population likely had run-ins with Immigration and Custom Enforcement officials, or misused identification documents.
Cornyn’s measure was defeated 51 to 46.
Instead, Democrats pushed for a substitute amendment sponsored by Sen. Ted Kennedy (D.-Mass.) that would block some criminals, like terrorist supporters, from obtaining a z visa, but not those who had defied deportation orders or had used fraudulent documents to work in the United States. Kennedy’s amendment passed 66-32.
Cornyn said Kennedy’s version would still allow sex offenders and drunk drivers to obtain legal status.
In a speech on the Senate floor, Kennedy said the Cornyn amendment would classify “an array of common, garden-variety immigration offenses as crimes that would make them ineligible for the program."
Kennedy said, "Cornyn says that if you have used false identification, you may be found inadmissible and may be deported. But in our broken system, the people that have wanted to work face the reality of where we are today.”
Ten Republicans crossed party lines to vote against Cornyn’s amendment, including presidential candidate Sen. John McCain (R.-Ariz.).
After his amendment was defeated, Cornyn told reporters, “What people are most concerned about is that this bill, no matter what it looks like on the outside will be hollow in the inside and it will not be enforced and we will only see a repetition of what happened in 1986.”
This vote was the one of many votes that ran over into early Thursday morning and tested the Senate’s will to finally pass an immigration reform bill from their chamber.
Sen. Robert Menendez (D.-N.J.) pushed an amendment that could have broken the fragile compromise agreement key senators, or “grand bargainers,” reached while working on the bill. He wanted to move up the cut-off date for family members applying to come to the U.S. from May 2005 to January 2007. As the bill stood, those who applied after May 2005 who entered illegally would not be able to gain legal status. This amendment would have increased the total number of illegal aliens by more than 800,000.
Sen. Jon Kyl (R.-Ariz.) said the amendment was “extraordinarily liberal.”
On the Senate floor, Kyl vented his frustration with Menendez for offering it. Kyl, a reliable conservative, has been angrily attacked by his base for supporting the White House-backed bill that immigration hawks call “amnesty.”
“It was not easy to get people to accept 12 million people who came here illegally,” Kyl said. “One of the things we had to respond to was, ‘Why should we allow chain migration?’ That was ended in this legislation. That was stopped as a part of the consensus that was reached. The adoption of the Menendez amendment would undo that. You can imagine how that makes some of us feel, like me, who have taken a lot of heat over this bill.”
To beat it back, Kyl raised a budget point of order, but it failed to receive the 60 votes needed, only receiving 53. Kyl then offered an alternative amendment to Menendez’s to allow more green card applications to be considered but not raise the cap. This amendment passed 51-45.
Leader Reid has scheduled a vote to end debate on the bill Thursday. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R.-Ky.) has the Republican votes to filibuster the bill, which he has threatened to do if the Democratic leadership does not allow Republicans to substantially amend the bill.
Because the bill was introduced as a substitute amendment to last year’s abandoned immigration bill, it was not subject to any hearings or committee markup. As a result, 80 amendments were filed to the bill, but only 20 were accepted by Democratic leadership.
In a session with reporters Wednesday afternoon, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R.-Ala.) said that the longer the bill is debated, the more support it will likely erode. “I don’t know how many votes are changing,” he said. “[Senators] are not happy with the way things are going.”
He declined to name which senators were unhappy, but added: “Enthusiasm is waning for the legislation. The American people have not bought into it. If it passes, it will be limping.”
If Republicans do filibuster, Reid has threatened to drop the bill and wait until next year to work on it again.