WASHINGTON – In Spanish and English, the Senate pushed contentious immigration legislation over early procedural hurdles with deceptive ease on Tuesday as President Barack Obama insisted the "moment is now" to give 11 million immigrants in the United States illegally a chance at citizenship.
Despite the lopsided votes, Republicans served notice they will seek to toughen the bill's border security provisions and impose tougher terms on those seeking to gain legal status. "This bill has serious flaws," said their party leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, one of several who noted pointedly that the 60-vote majority they will demand for passage is hardly assured.
Even before the first proposed changes were considered, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a potential 2016 Republican presidential contender, outlined the complicated state of play for a measure that he helped draft as a member of the bipartisan "Gang of Eight" and now seeks to alter. With changes to tighten control of the U.S.-Mexican border, he said, about half of the Senate's 46 Republicans are prepared to vote to create the pathway to citizenship that is backed by most or all of the 54 lawmakers aligned with the Democratic majority.
At the White House, Obama said repeatedly the current immigration system is broken, for the foreign-born who live in the United State legally and illegally alike.
Referring to the 11 million currently in the country unlawfully, he said, "Yes, they broke the rules; they didn't wait their turn. They shouldn't be let off easy. They shouldn't be allowed to game the system. But at the same time, the vast majority of these individuals aren't looking for any trouble. They're just looking to provide for their families, contribute to their communities. "
At its core, the bill sets out a 13-year journey to citizenship for the millions of immigrants who arrived in the United States illegally through the end of 2011 or who overstayed their visas. That journey would include paying fines and back taxes and other measures. The bill also requires a tighter border to prevent future illegal immigration.
Other key provisions would create a new program for low-skilled workers to enter the country and expand the number of visas for high-skilled who are particularly in demand in technology firms. The bill also jettisons a decades-old system that favors family ties over education, job skills and other factors in prioritizing prospective legal immigrants.
Obama didn't say so, but the legislation is likely his best hope of achieving a second-term landmark domestic accomplishment.
Numerous Republicans hope to use the issue to repair their party's image among Hispanic voters, a growing portion of the electorate in key states, and a group that polls show gave Obama 71 percent of its votes last year. But the GOP is divided, with tea party-backed lawmakers and other conservatives resisting anything that smacks of amnesty or otherwise seems to permit legalization without assuring the long border with Mexico in particular is virtually closed to future unlawful immigration.
"Of all of the issue swirling around this bill the path to citizenship for those who are here illegally is the single most divisive issue," said Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican elected to his first term last fall. "And that is the issue on which the Obama White House and Senate Democrats insist, and by insisting on that division I believe they by design destine this bill to be voted down."
In the Capitol, Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., chose to deliver a speech on the immigration measure in Spanish. He said it was appropriate to do so since the language "has been spoken in this country since Spanish missionaries founded St. Augustine, Florida in 1565. Spanish is also spoken by almost 40 million Americans who have a lot at stake in the outcome of this debate," he said in an English translation provided by his office.
Taken together, the two procedural votes had the effect of placing the bill formally before the Senate and open for amendments. Both drew more than 80 votes, reflecting a bipartisan desire to have the debate that now is expected to consume three weeks.
Substantively, an early skirmish took shape over a proposal by Cruz' fellow Texan, Sen. John Cornyn. It would permit the legalization process to begin, but require several changes before anyone currently in the country illegally could receive a green card that confers permanent legal residence.
Those changes include apprehension of at least 90 percent of those seeking to cross into the United States at every segment of the Southern border, implementation of a biometric exit system at all air and sea ports of entry and a nationwide E-Verify system to check the legal status of prospective employees.
Democratic supporters of the legislation have deemed Cornyn's plan a "poison pill," designed to wreck the bill's chances for passage instead of enhance them. But the Texan told reporters he had some leverage to force changes, if nothing else.
"I think if they had 60 votes to pass a bill out of the Senate they probably wouldn't be talking to me. And they are," Cornyn said of majority Democrats.
As the Senate embarked on a debate expected to last for weeks, Speaker John Boehner said he hoped companion legislation could clear committee in the House by the end of the month.
In an ABC interview, the Ohio Republican sidestepped when asked if he is prepared to support a pathway to citizenship for those living in the country illegally. "A lot of these big questions will be decided on the House floor," he said.
In the Senate, McConnell sounded a similar note.
"The Gang of Eight has done its work," he said, referring to the four senators from each party that crafted the basic bill. "Now it's time for the Gang of 100 to do its work."
Associated Press writer Erica Werner contributed to this report.