Immigration Bill Finally Heads to the Senate Floor

Gun amendments, border security and taxes could doom immigration bill.

President Barack Obama delivers remarks during an event in support of the Senate's bipartisan immigration reform bill at the White House in Washington, DC, June 11, 2013. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

GOP members are still demanding stronger border security provisions be added before they support the bill.

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The Senate moved 84 to 15 Tuesday to begin debate on a bill that would give some of the country's 11 million immigrants who entered the country illegally a chance to become U.S. citizens while also giving Republicans a chance to shed an image of disdain toward minority voters.

A majority of the Republican caucus voted with Senate Democrats to begin discussion on sweeping immigration legislation.

"This was a very pleasing vote for me that a majority of my caucus understood the need to move forward on the immigration debate," says Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a member of the bipartisan "gang of eight" who drafted the bill.

But not everyone who voted to move forward with the debate will ultimately support the bill.

GOP members are still demanding stronger border security provisions be added before they support the bill. And some moderate Democrats have yet to publicly endorse the legislation.

[READ: Both Parties Lukewarm on Senate's Immigration Reform Package]

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, has introduced the key Republican amendment to address the border concerns. His amendment would require that law enforcement implement stops of 90 percent of border crossings and install a biometric entry-exit system before immigrants who came to the country illegally are eligible for legal residency. The amendment also calls for the establishment of an electronic employee verification system to ensure business owners are only hiring legal workers.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has called the amendment a "poison pill" and warned that Republicans are trying to keep immigrants from becoming citizens.

 

"It is absolutely not a poison pill as Senator Reid said before he had the opportunity to read [the amendment]," Cornyn says. "It is a way to guarantee that the promises made in the bill will actually be implemented."

GOP support for the amendment is mounting.

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"Now is the time to improve it," Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said of his immigration bill. "I think ultimately people want certainty on the green card process, but they also have to have certainty on the border security. They are both equally important."

Cornyn's amendment is not the only one that could stall the Senate's momentum.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, has introduced a provision that would require immigrants to prove they have paid all of their back taxes before they can be eligible for the 13-year path to citizenship, a stipulation Democrats have said would be nearly impossible for immigrants to account for.

Democrats are also expected to file their share of amendments that will lead to partisan rancor on the Senate floor.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., has drafted two separate amendments that would limit immigrants' access to guns. One would require the U.S. attorney general to alert the Department of Homeland Security when a temporary visitor or undocumented immigrant tried to buy firearms. The other would ban undocumented immigrants from buying guns.

However, Blumenthal has signaled he will shelve the amendments if Democratic leaders say they will derail the bill entirely.

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Both parties have an interest in passing immigration reform, even as obstacles lie in their way. Democrats are looking to make good on a promise President Barack Obama made during his campaign.

And for Republicans, the tone and tenor of the debate could have significant implications across the party as they fight to regain their standing among Latino voters. In the 2012 presidential election, Obama won nearly 75 percent of the Latino vote.

The politics get fuzzy for senators from conservative border states, like Texas and Arizona, and is even more uncertain in the House, where fewer than 60 percent of lawmakers preside over Latino populations that are over 10 percent of total districts.

"This bill will crash and burn in the House, and it was designed to do so," Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said on the Senate floor following the vote, arguing that the bill would never get the traction it needed to pass in the House.