WASHINGTON -- The Senate was on track to approve a sweeping immigration overhaul Thursday, but the landmark legislation has dim hopes in the GOP-controlled House despite drawing significant Republican support with the addition of $46 billion in border security.
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) has no immediate plans to consider the legislation, in large part because it would provide a path to citizenship for the 11 million immigrants in the country without legal status, which his GOP majority opposes. House Republicans are drafting their own bills.
The Senate measure cleared a final hurdle midday EDT Thursday, with a 68-32 vote to bring debate to a close. The hoped for 70-vote tally that could spark momentum in the House slipped as Republicans peeled off. Fourteen Republicans and all Democrats voted yes. Final passage of the bill was expected later in the day.
Visitors filled the Senate gallery for the historic vote, including young immigrants who came to the United States as children and call themselves Dreamers, after legislation in the bill that would give them a route to citizenship if they serve in the military or attend college.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) advised his colleagues that the final vote would be conducted from their assigned seats, as is rarely done.
"It's historic in nature, we should be here to vote," Reid said.
Senate Republicans have split over the bill that was crafted by a bipartisan group that included one of their upcoming leaders, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a potential presidential hopeful.
Some see the legislation as important in their outreach to Latino voters, but for many Republicans, the measure's unprecedented "border surge" of drones, troops and fencing along the boundary with Mexico did not convince them future illegal immigration would diminish.
The Senate's top Republicans, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, voted no.
"It's with a great deal of regret, for me at least, that the final bill didn't turn out to be something I can support," McConnell said. "If you can't be reasonably certain that the border is secure as a condition of legalization, there's just no way to be sure that millions more won't follow the illegal immigrants who are already here."
Months in the making, the Senate legislation represents a rare bipartisan achievement for a Congress that has been strictly divided along partisan lines.
Critics on one side deride the legalization path as "amnesty," while those on the other call the tradeoff an unnecessary militarization of border communities.
Under the legislation, immigrants would be able to transition to legal permanent resident status with green cards in 10 years, once the border has been bolstered with 24-hour drones, 20,000 new Border Patrol officers and 700 miles of fence, among other measures. They must also have paid fines and fees, know English and be in good standing after undergoing background checks.
Because 40% of the immigrants in the country illegally did not cross borders but stayed on expired visas, a new visa exit system would be required at all major airports.
The overhaul would substantially reform the nation's long-standing preference for family members to join immigrants living here. Under the new system, more preference is given to workers. A new guest-worker program for low-skilled maids, gardeners and others would be launched, and more high-skilled visas would be available. To stem illegal immigration, all employers will need to verify the legal status of new hires.
The legislation was the product of a hard-fought agreements reached among powerful players in Washington, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the AFL-CIO and advocates for immigrants.