Immigration reform proponents on both sides of the aisle are cautiously optimistic about the legislation's chances following its passage out of a key Senate committee Tuesday. The willingness of the bipartisan group of lawmakers who negotiated the bill's framework to stick together despite an onslaught of amendments – some designed to improve the measure but others designed to sink it – bode well for the future, the measure's supporters say.
In particular, the decision by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., to withhold an amendment he planned to offer that would have extended citizenship rights to gay couples and families was seen as a crucial move. Fellow Democrats essentially begged the Senate Judiciary chairman to not put the amendment to a vote because they knew even their most willing Republican counterparts would balk at supporting the immigration bill if it was included.
"There's a possibility we can get 70 votes in the Senate," says Brad Bailey, a restaurant owner, Republican and co-founder of Texas Immigration Solutions, a pro-reform advocacy group. "It was very, very encouraging to see that the Leahy amendment was not put forward; that would have been a poison pill for the whole bill. It really looks like both sides of the aisle are giving and taking and doing what's best for the country instead of political posturing."
Bailey did caution, however, that conservatives are not completely convinced Democrats won't try to derail the effort to keep it alive as a campaign issue into the 2014 midterm elections.
"There's still a lot of game to be played and I think a lot of the concerns are if President Obama and some of the Democrats really want this problem to go away or do they want it to continue to be an albatross on the Republicans," he says. "It's going to be real interesting to see as we go forward what happens with that."
But overall Bailey is encouraged by the change in tone by those on his side of the aisle and efforts over in the Republican-controlled House.
"They've been working behind closed doors, they are being tight-lipped about it, which means that there's some trust there and I think that's great," he says. "They are genuinely addressing the problem. In November the game changed and people were willing to talk about it in different ways."
President George W. Bush, who championed 'compassionate conservatism,' garnered 44 percent of the Hispanic vote during the 2004 presidential election; in 2008, John McCain got 31 percent and in 2012, Mitt Romney got 27 percent, Bailey says.
"Complaining about the problem and the political rhetoric has proved to be a political loser and people have started to wake up on this issue," he adds.
Mary Giovagnoli, director of the Immigration Policy Center at the American Immigration Council, says the manner in which the reform measure passed the Senate Judiciary Committee was encouraging.
"It was a compromise that held throughout the entire process, even when there were some extremely difficult votes or possibilities of votes for both sides," she says.
Giovagnoli compared the effort favorably to that of 2007, the last time a bipartisan, comprehensive immigration proposal was attempted.
"This is certainly much more concrete and less divisive in some ways than the 2007 proposal," she says. "There it really felt like the whole thing was put together with Band-Aids and there was a lot of kicking and screaming."
Some lawmakers seeking to torpedo the bill will continue to apply pressure with bad faith amendments when the full Senate takes it up in June, Giovagnoli predicts, but she believes the pending introduction of a House proposal will keep reform momentum going.
"It's extremely difficult to fight anything that sounds like it's tough on crime, so I anticipate there will be a lot of attempts to make criminal actions, visa overstays or anything where someone is stepping over the line some kind of additional ground of inadmissibility or bar to future relief," she says. "People will be trying to leverage the tension [between the partisan extremes] in different ways. But the introduction of a bill in the House is additional momentum that will, I think, keep people excited about the process and the possibility that the two legislative bodies are actually doing something."
Rebecca Tallent, former chief of staff for Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and director of immigration policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center, says the momentum is real but the conclusion for immigration reform is far from known thanks to bicameral politics.
"A strong Senate vote will be very helpful, but those saying a strong Senate vote will force the House to take up the Senate bill are wrong," she says. "The worst thing you can do for immigration reform right now is to try to jam the Senate bill down the House Republicans' throat. They have to feel invested in the process, they have to feel that they have had an input and that's not just at the committee level."