In the end, Gang of Eight members failed to secure the 70 votes they wanted for their immigration-reform bill, which passed the Senate 68 to 32 on Thursday, after months of mostly secret negotiations.
Only 14 out of 46 Republicans supported the legislation, along with every Democrat. As all eyes now turn to the GOP-led House of Representatives, the bill’s opponents are by no means claiming victory but say they’re relatively pleased at how the debate has played out so far, and they are cautiously optimistic about forcing an outcome that is more palatable to conservatives.
Senator Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.), a leading critic of the bill, said passage in the Senate was “just the beginning.”
“The more people learned about the bill, the more uneasy they became,” Sessions said in a statement following the vote. “Failure to reach 70 votes is significant, and ensures the House has plenty of space to chart an opposite course and reject this fatally flawed proposal.”
Of course, many of the bill’s supporters have counted on the House to more or less rubber-stamp the Gang’s plan. “I think the House should pass our bill,” Senator Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) said Thursday. That may have been a conceivable outcome several months ago, but it’s currently out of the question.
The House is unlikely to vote on the Senate measure. House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) is under considerable pressure not to allow it. “It just won’t happen,” Deputy Whip Peter Roskam (R., Ill.) told reporters Thursday. Republicans are likely to pass their own reform package broken up into “smaller components,” he said.
Even though the effort to block the bill in the Senate did not succeed, “it was necessary and fruitful to fight the battle, because it really has tainted the legislation,” says Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies. “The bill is clearly toxic in the House.”
The bill’s opponents have succeeded in defining the bill as an “amnesty first” approach, effectively rebutting supporters’ arguments that “the status quo is de facto amnesty,” says Dan Holler, the communication director for Heritage Action. “I think that’s a huge victory, and it makes the push for a comprehensive bill in the House a whole lot harder. If you can take anything away from the Senate debate, it’s that there is a whole lot of Republican opposition in the House to an amnesty-first approach.”
In an effort to increase political pressure on the House to act, the Gang of Eight had worked to boost the number of Republican votes, but they ultimately stalled at 14. Apart from Marco Rubio (R., Fla.), none of those 14 Republicans (Susan Collins, Lindsey Graham, John McCain, and Lisa Murkowski, among others) are likely to be considered strong conservatives. Opponents credit the vote tally to their efforts to expose what they see as the bill’s significant flaws; their work has encouraged the sort of grassroots opposition that will be even more effective when aimed at House members, who have smaller constituencies and shorter terms. Opponents are also pleased to see a rising conservative star such as Ted Cruz (R., Texas) emerge as a major critic of the Gang’s plan.
As far as Rubio is concerned, his admittedly valiant effort to sell the Gang’s plan to conservatives was less than a perfect success. Talk-radio hosts such as Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, Sean Hannity, Hugh Hewitt, and Laura Ingraham gave Rubio almost every opportunity to win them over, but to no avail. Even Rubio champion Bill Kristol was not convinced. “It’s kind of hilarious. If you’re a high-immigration, loose-enforcement kind of guy and you can’t get Bill Kristol on your side, then you’re doing it wrong,” Krikorian says.
On Wednesday, Rubio made an impassioned plea to conservatives, acknowledging their disagreement on immigration reform, but vowing to “fight alongside” them on other important issues. As one GOP aide remarks: “It’s obvious to anyone with ears that he’s doing damage control.”
The Senate debate has engaged conservatives, and as the House begins its work on immigration reform, they will be paying close attention. Even if the House passes a series of separate bills, which appears likely, opponents of the Gang’s plan will be watching to see whether Boehner intends to conference with Senate Democrats in order to reach a compromise that some fear will closely resemble the Senate bill. “That’s going to be a red flag,” Holler says.
“Boehner will be tempted to go to conference, and just stick the Senate bill into the shell of the House bill, and pass it with Democratic votes in the House,” Krikorian says. “He would clearly love to do that. On the other hand, he probably wants to keep his job.”
Of course, House Republicans will face pressure from both sides of the issue, with the Chamber of Commerce, Grover Norquist, and House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan (R., Wis.), among others, backing the Gang’s effort.
Opposition to the Gang of Eight bill was effective in part because critics were able to avoid being cast as anti-immigrant or anti-immigration. Some House members, on the other hand, are less known for their nuance and subtlety, and Democrats will do their best to demagogue the issue. Schumer has already predicted mass demonstrations if the House does not include a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants in their reform package.
But opponents are confident that most Americans agree with them on the merits of a “border-security first” approach to immigration reform. “Once there is a level of confidence on a secure border, then you can begin to move forward on these other elements,” such as a pathway to citizenship, Deputy Whip Roskam said.
— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online.