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Border Security Vote A Barometer For Immigration Bill's Chances


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Audie Cornish.

A massive immigration policy overhaul passed a crucial test this evening in the United States Senate. In a procedural vote that was seen as a measure of support for the overall bill, 15 Republicans joined the Senate's Democrats and its two independents to limit further debate on an amendment beefing up security along the Mexican border. More security has been a central GOP demand. Joining us from the Capitol is NPR's David Welna. And, David, what does the result of this test vote tell us?

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Well, Audie, the 67 to 27 vote tells us the immigration bill itself is likely to get the support of at least two thirds of the Senate, which is no small thing when you consider how deeply divided that chamber is over just about everything else that comes its way. Supporters of the bill were hoping to get at least 70 votes today because they think such a strong showing gives the bill a lot of momentum towards the finish line, both in the Democratic-led Senate and beyond that in the GOP-controlled House. But we also had some very prominent Republicans voting no tonight, including all five members of the GOP leadership team. There was also virtually united opposition from Republicans with Tea Party ties, among them Kentucky's Rand Paul, who had earlier indicated he might be willing to support the immigration bill.

CORNISH: Now, the majority leader Democrat Harry Reid says he wants to finish this immigration bill before the Senate leaves at the end of the week for its Fourth of July recess. So what are the chances of that actually happening?

WELNA: I think there's a very good chance we'll see the Senate pass the immigration bill by the end of this week. And that's mainly because with this new amendment, which nearly doubles the number of border patrol agents along the Mexican border and the miles of fencing along it, Republicans will have some needed political cover to vote for a bill that conservative critics have said is too soft on border security. So Senate passage is by now nearly a foregone conclusion.

CORNISH: Of course, no bill can be signed into law until it has the approval of both the Senate and the House, so what chance does the Senate proposal have of being passed by the House?

WELNA: At this point, I'd say probably no chance at all. And that's because House Speaker John Boehner declared last week that his chamber will only consider immigration legislation that's supported by a majority of Republicans. And there clearly is not much support among House Republicans for a bill that has a path to citizenship, as the Senate bill does, for some 11 million foreigners who are in the country unlawfully.

The House is more likely to pass a much more narrow immigration bill focused mainly on enforcement with no path to citizenship. On the Senate floor today, majority leader Reid seemed to have already shifted his focus to trying to publicly talk Speaker Boehner out of doing such a bill.

SENATOR HARRY REID: Mr. Speaker, rather than trying force legislation designed to please only the right wing, you, Mr. Speaker, should take away the obstacles we have and take the easy way out actually. Do the right thing. Seek votes from Democrats and Republicans. America deserves a commonsense approach.

WELNA: Now, Speaker Boehner has not ruled out relying on House Democrats to help pass a final immigration bill, but it's looking increasingly as if such a final vote may not even be in the cards this year.

CORNISH: But David, after the election when Republicans took a beating at the polls, some of them argued that there should be incentive for them to revamp immigration policy.

WELNA: Well, the party does have a huge incentive to pass an immigration bill that leaves them in better standing with Latino and Asian voters, and that's how many GOP senators who represent entire states see it. But many GOP House members represent districts that don't have a lot of those voters, and they're more worried about their own political survival than their party's. None of them wants to face a primary challenger next year and possibly lose his or her job for having supported an immigration bill just for the good of the party.

CORNISH: That's NPR congressional correspondent David Welna. David, thanks.

WELNA: You're welcome, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.
Over two decades of journalism, Audie Cornish has become a recognized and trusted voice on the airwaves as co-host of NPR's flagship news program, All Things Considered.