WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. Senate is on the cusp of approving immigration legislation offering citizenship to millions in the country illegally and spending billions of dollars to secure the border.
The vote on final passage of the White House-backed bill was expected as early as Thursday, after a series of test votes so far this week demonstrated supporters command a bipartisan majority well over the 60 votes needed to secure passage.
But the fate of the bill is far from certain as it heads to Republican-controlled House of Representatives, where it will likely face stiff resistance from conservatives.
“We’re on the edge of passing one of the most significant pieces of legislation that this body has passed in a very long time,” Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer said on the Senate floor Wednesday. “The vast majority of members in this body realize that the immigration system is broken and needs fixing.”
President Barack Obama, whose second-term agenda was quickly complicated by scandals like the improper targeting of political groups by the federal tax agency, could use a big legislative victory like the passage of an immigration bill.
Both political parties in a bitterly divided Congress have found some rare common ground on immigration reform, with Republicans focusing on the issue after overwhelmingly losing the growing Hispanic vote in last year’s presidential election.
At its core, the legislation in the Senate includes numerous steps to prevent future illegal immigration, while at the same time it offers a chance at citizenship to the 11 million immigrants now living in the country unlawfully.
It provides for 20,000 new Border Patrol agents, requires the completion of 700 miles of fencing and that an array of high-tech devices be deployed to secure the border with Mexico.
Businesses would be required to check on the legal status of prospective employees. Other provisions would expand the number of visas for highly skilled workers relied upon by the technology industry. A separate program would be established for lower-skilled workers, and farm workers would be admitted under a temporary program.
The basic legislation was drafted by four Democrats and four Republicans who met privately for months to produce a rare bipartisan compromise in a polarized Senate. They fended off unwanted changes in the Senate Judiciary Committee and then were involved in negotiations with Republican Sens. John Hoeven and Bob Corker on a package of tougher border security provisions that swelled support among Republicans.
Outnumbered critics insist the bill falls short of the promises made for it. Republican Sen. Richard Shelby called it “the mother of all amnesties.”
Supporters posted 67 votes or more on each of three procedural tests Wednesday. More than a dozen Republicans sided with Democrats on each, ensuring bipartisan support that the bill’s backers hope will change minds in the House.
The outlook there is uncertain. Many in the Republican-controlled House oppose the pathway to citizenship at the center of the Senate bill. And many prefer a piecemeal approach rather than a sweeping bill like the one the Senate is producing.
An attempt at a bipartisan House deal faltered, and majority Republicans began moving ahead on legislation tailored to the wishes of conservatives and vehemently opposed by Democrats.
The House Judiciary Committee is in the midst of a piece-by-piece effort, signing off Wednesday on legislation to establish a system within two years requiring all employers to check their workers’ legal status.
The committee was turning its attention Thursday to a bill on high-skilled workers. Last week it approved two more measures, one on agriculture workers and a second to make illegal presence in the country a federal crime, instead of a civil offense as it is now.
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