Immigration bill clears Senate test

(AP)

WASHINGTON (AP) – Historic immigration legislation cleared a key
Senate hurdle with votes to spare on Monday, pointing the way to
near-certain passage within days for $38 billion worth of new security
measures along the border with Mexico and an unprecedented chance at
citizenship for millions living in the country illegally.

The vote was 67-27, seven more than the 60 needed,
with 15 Republicans agreeing to advance legislation at the top of
President Barack Obama's second-term domestic agenda.

The vote came as Obama campaigned from the White
House for the bill, saying, “now is the time” to overhaul an immigration
system that even critics of the legislation agree needs reform.

Last-minute frustration was evident among
opponents. In an unusual slap at members of his own party as well as
Democrats, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas said it appeared that
lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle “very much want a fig
leaf” on border security to justify a vote for immigration.

Senate passage on Thursday or Friday would send the
issue to the House, where conservative Republicans in the majority
oppose citizenship for anyone living in the country illegally.

Some GOP lawmakers have appealed to Speaker John
Boehner not to permit any immigration legislation to come to a vote for
fear that whatever its contents, it would open the door to an
unpalatable compromise with the Senate. At the same time, the House
Judiciary Committee is in the midst of approving a handful of measures
related to immigration, action that ordinarily is a prelude to votes in
the full House.

“Now is the time to do it,” Obama said at the White
House before meeting with nine business executives who support a change
in immigration laws. He added, “I hope that we can get the strongest
possible vote out of the Senate so that we can then move to the House
and get this done before the summer break” beginning in early August.

He said the measure would be good for the economy, for business and for workers who are “oftentimes exploited at low wages.”

As for the overall economy, he said, “I think every
business leader here feels confident that they'll be in a stronger
position to continue to innovate, to continue to invest, to continue to
create jobs and ensure that this continues to be the land of opportunity
for generations to come.”

Opponents saw it otherwise. “It will encourage more
illegal immigration and must be stopped,” Cruz exhorted supporters via
email, urging them to contact their own senators with a plea to defeat
the measure.

Leaving little to chance, the U.S. Chamber of
Commerce announced it was launching a new seven-figure ad buy Monday in
support of the bill. “Call Congress. End de facto amnesty. Create jobs
and economic growth by supporting conservative immigration reforms,” the
ad said.

Senate officials said some changes were still
possible to the bill before it leaves the Senate – alterations that
would swell the vote total.

At the same time, Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., who
voted to advance the measure during the day, said he may yet end up
opposing it unless he wins a pair of changes he is seeking.

Senate Democrats were unified on the vote.

Republicans were anything but on a bill that some
party leaders say offers the GOP a chance to show a more welcoming face
to Hispanic voters, yet tea party-aligned lawmakers assail as amnesty
for those who have violated the law.

The party's two top Senate leaders, Mitch McConnell
of Kentucky and John Cornyn of Texas, voted against advancing the
measure. Both are seeking new terms next year.

Among potential 2016 GOP presidential contenders,
Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida was an enthusiastic supporter of the bill,
while Cruz and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky were opposed.

The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office has
estimated the legislation will reduce the deficit and increase economic
growth in each of the next two decades. It is also predicting
unemployment will rise slightly through 2020, and that average wages
will move lower over a decade.

At its core, the legislation in the Senate would
create a 13-year pathway to citizenship for an estimated 11 million
immigrants living illegally in the United States. It also calls for
billions of dollars to be spent on manpower and technology to secure the
2,000-mile border with Mexico, including a doubling of the Border
Patrol with 20,000 new agents.

The measure also would create a new program for
temporary farm laborers to come into the country, and another for
lower-skilled workers to emigrate permanently. At the same time, it
calls for an expansion of an existing visa program for highly-skilled
workers, a gesture to high tech companies that rely heavily on
foreigners.

In addition to border security, the measure phases
in a mandatory program for employers to verify the legal status of
potential workers, and separate effort to track the comings and goings
of foreigners at some of the nation's airports.

The legislation was originally drafted by a
bipartisan Gang of 8, four senators from each party who negotiated a
series of political trade-offs over several months.

The addition of the tougher border security
provisions came after CBO informed lawmakers that they could potentially
spend tens of billions of dollars to sweeten the bill without fearing
higher deficits.

The result was a series of changes negotiated
between the Gang of 8 and Republican Sens. John Hoeven of North Dakota
and Bob Corker of Tennessee. Different, lesser-noticed provisions helped
other lawmakers swing behind the measure.

In a speech on the Senate floor, Sen. Charles
Grassley, R-Iowa, likened some of them to “earmarks,” the now-banned
practice of directing federal funds to the pet projects of individual
lawmakers.

He cited a provision creating a $1.5 billion jobs
fund for low-income youth and pair of changes to benefit the seafood
processing industry in Alaska. Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., issued a
statement on Friday trumpeting the benefits of the first; Alaska Sens.
Lisa Murkowski, a Republican, and Mark Begich, a Democrat, took credit
for the two others.

Grassley also raised questions about the origin of a
detailed list of planes, sensors, cameras and other equipment to be
placed along the southern border.

“Who provided the amendment sponsors with this
list?” asked Grassley, who is a member of the Judiciary Committee that
approved an earlier version of the bill. Homeland Security Secretary
Janet Napolitano “did not provide the committee with any list. Did
Sikorsky, Cessna and Northrup Grumann send up a wish list to certain
members of the Senate?”

Randy Belote, a spokesman for Northrup Grumann,
said in an email the firm has “not had the opportunity to review the
comments nor… provided the committee a 'wish list' of its systems to
consider.”

Officials at the other two companies did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Copyright 2013 The
Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be
published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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