Side by side, leading Democratic and Republican senators pledged Monday to propel far-reaching immigration legislation through the Senate by summer, providing a possible path to citizenship for an estimated 11 million people now in the U.S. illegally.
The senators acknowledged pitfalls that have doomed such efforts in the past, but they suggested that November’s elections — with Hispanics voting heavily for President Barack Obama and other Democrats — could make this time different.
Passage of the emotionally charged legislation by the Democratic-controlled Senate is far from assured, and a taller hurdle could come later in the House, which is dominated by conservative Republicans who’ve shown little interest in immigration overhaul. Obama is expected to lay out his own proposals on Tuesday.
Besides the citizenship provision, including new qualifications, the measure would increase border security, allow more temporary workers to stay and crack down on employers who would hire illegal immigrants. The plans are still short on detail, and all the senators conceded that months of tedious and politically treacherous negotiations lie ahead.
But with a re-elected Obama pledging his commitment, the lawmakers argued that six years after the last sustained congressional effort at an immigration overhaul came up short in the Senate, chances for approval this year are much better.
“Other bipartisan groups of senators have stood in the same spot before, trumpeting similar proposals,” said Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.). “But we believe this will be the year Congress finally gets it done. The politics on this issue have been turned upside down,” Schumer said, arguing that polls show more support than ever for immigration changes and political risk in opposing it.
“Elections. Elections,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). “The Republican Party is losing the support of our Hispanic citizens. And we realize that there are many issues on which we think we are in agreement with our Hispanic citizens, but this is a pre-eminent issue with those citizens.”
Obama got 71 percent of the Latino vote in November compared to 27 percent for Republican Mitt Romney. The president travels to Las Vegas Tuesday to lay out his proposals for immigration changes that are expected to be similar to the Senate proposals in many ways.
In a five-page framework, the lawmakers set out plans for creating a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants already here, contingent upon securing the border and better tracking of people in the U.S. on visas, overhauling the legal immigration system, including awarding green cards to immigrants who obtain certain advanced degrees from American universities, creating an effective high-tech employment verification system to ensure that employers do not hire illegal immigrants in the future and allowing more low-skill and agricultural workers.
In a sign of the challenges ahead, the proposals immediately got a cool reaction from Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
“This effort is too important to be written in a back room and sent to the floor with a take-it-or-leave it approach,” McConnell said. “It needs to be done on a bipartisan basis and include ideas from both sides of the aisle.”
Besides McCain and Schumer, the senators endorsing the new principles Monday were Democrats Dick Durbin of Illinois, Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Michael Bennet of Colorado and Republicans Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Marco Rubio of Florida and Jeff Flake of Arizona.
Several of them have worked for years on the issue. McCain collaborated with the late Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy on the comprehensive immigration legislation pushed by then-President George W. Bush that failed in 2007.
The group claims a notable newcomer in Rubio, a potential 2016 presidential candidate whose conservative bona fides may help smooth the way for support among conservatives wary of anything that smacks of amnesty.
Rubio has been working with the group while also detailing his own similar immigration proposals to selected media, getting a generally positive reaction from conservative media.
“There are 11 million human beings in this country today that are undocumented. That’s not something that anyone is happy about; that’s not something that anyone wanted to see happen, but that is what happened. And we have an obligation and the need to address the reality of the situation that we face,” Rubio said Monday.