WASHINGTON — A landmark bill to overhaul the immigration system passed the Senate on Thursday, winning a large majority as its sponsors had hoped, but showing no signs of gaining ground with the Republican majority in the House.
Supporters hailed the bipartisan bill as a historic achievement. President Obama called it "common-sense reform" and urged the House to take it up. "We have a unique opportunity to fix our broken system in a way that upholds our traditions as a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants," he said. "We just need Congress to finish the job."
Many conservative Republicans deride the bill's central element — a path to citizenship for the 11 million people in the country without legal status — as "amnesty." Many represent districts with few minority voters and have little familiarity with the complexities of immigration law. They are drafting their own legislation, unswayed by the Senate's hard-fought compromise.
The bill passed, 68 to 32, with significant GOP backing, but the momentum the bill's authors sought has stalled. Backers failed to reach the hoped-for 70 votes despite the late addition of a $46-billion border security package to win over Republicans.
In 2006, the Senate also passed a major immigration bill, only to see it die in the House. This year's bill passed with six more votes. More important, the bill comes against a backdrop of growing Latino political power. The key question will be how much pressure Republicans who want to improve their party's standing with Latinos can put on colleagues.
Some GOP leaders, including Rep. Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, have publicly nudged lawmakers to act, arguing that reform would be good for the country, the economy and the party.
"We must solve this problem once and for all or it will only get worse," said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a potential 2016 presidential hopeful and a leader of the Senate effort. "And it will only get harder to solve."
But an influential House Republican, Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho, said this week there was no rush to act. He expects the House to approve legislation by year's end. "The American people aren't clamoring for a path to citizenship," he said. "We can't run around scared thinking that we have to do something."
Those conflicting views describe the dilemma confronting House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), who has given mixed signals about his willingness to compromise with Democrats on the overhaul. Boehner has increasingly deferred to the hard-right faction of his majority, some of whom have threatened to boot him from the speakership. They say bills must have support from a majority of House Republicans before coming to the floor.
Boehner must decide whether to pursue a compromise with Democrats that could give his party a boost with Latino voters in 2016 and potentially cost him his job, or hold fast to the wishes of his conservative majority, some of whom fear that they could face primary challenges from the right next year.
"I have made it clear since the day after the election that I thought this political football should stop and that the Congress should deal with this issue," Boehner said Thursday. "It's not easy. If it were easy, it would have been fixed a long time ago. But I do think the House and the Senate have to act, and I'm trying to do everything I can to help make sure that we act."
For now, he is expected to give conservatives wide latitude to bring a series of tough-on-enforcement bills to the floor for votes, even as he privately continues to press a bipartisan House group to write a broader compromise, according to those familiar with the negotiations.
To test whether Republicans might be more willing to consider a citizenship path for immigrants now here illegally, some in the party are preparing bills along those lines.
One may provide citizenship opportunities for young people who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children, similar to the Dream Act provision in the Senate bill, giving them a quicker path to citizenship if they go into the military or attend college. Other bills might provide a citizenship path to veterans' spouses or other select immigrants.
"Many members, including myself, are open to some kind of earned path to a lawful status that, to many, would result in earned citizenship. Not all," said Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), a moderate.
The Senate legislation represents a rare bipartisan achievement for a Congress that has been divided along partisan lines. Fourteen Republican senators joined all Democrats in the effort to provide the 13-year path to citizenship, alongside the $46-billion build-up of force along the U.S.-Mexico border.
The solemnity of the vote was underscored as senators, seated rather than milling about as usual, rose one by one to vote. Vice President Joe Biden presided, and several House members came to watch. The galleries were packed with observers, including young immigrants who came as children and who have been vocal in pushing for the bill. After the vote, shouts of "Yes, we can!" broke out in the crowd.
Critics on one side of the issue deride the legalization path as "amnesty"' those on the other call the border-security plan an unnecessary militarization of U.S. communities.