WASHINGTON (AP) — Senate debate on far-reaching immigration legislation turned Wednesday to border security, with Republicans arguing that the bill needs much stronger provisions in that area and Democrats suggesting that some in the GOP are just out to kill the legislation.
This discordant note burst into view just a day after senators voted overwhelmingly to officially open debate on the landmark bill. It has been a top priority for President Barack Obama, but the latest dispute underscored the political obstacles standing in the way of enactment.
The measure sets out a 13-year journey to citizenship for some 11 million immigrants in the country illegally, allowing the process toward citizenship to begin only after certain border security goals have been met. But critics say those border "triggers" aren't strong enough, and a number of Republicans are proposing amendments to strengthen them.
An amendment offered by Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, would prohibit anyone from taking the first steps toward citizenship until the secretary of Homeland Security has certified to Congress that the U.S.-Mexico border has been under control for six months.
"Unfortunately too many people have been led to believe that this bill will force the secretary of Homeland Security to secure the border. In fact, it does not guarantee that before legalization," Grassley, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said on the Senate floor Wednesday. "That's why we need to pass my amendment."
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the Judiciary Committee chairman, said he would oppose efforts including Grassley's amendment "to modify the triggers in ways that could unduly delay or prevent the earned legalization path."
"I welcome additional ideas for how to enhance border security and public safety," Leahy said. "But our goal must be to secure the border, not seal it. I will oppose efforts that impose unrealistic, excessively costly, overly rigid, inhumane or ineffective border security measures."
At the White House Tuesday, Obama insisted the "moment is now" to give the millions living in the United States illegally a chance at citizenship and prodded Congress to send him a bill by fall.
Supporters expressed confidence they could muster the 60 votes needed for the bill to overcome Republican stalling tactics and pass the Senate by July Fourth. Democrats control 54 Senate votes, and Republicans 46. But a number of opponents said success was far from assured.
And some key supporters including Sens. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., are looking for closer to 70 votes on final passage to show resounding momentum for the bill and pressure the Republican-led House to act. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has said repeatedly in recent days that he wants to act on immigration, but it's not clear how the issue will move forward in his chamber, where many conservatives view citizenship for immigrants here illegally as amnesty.
The bill's four Democratic and four Republican authors were looking for ways to accept Republican amendments on border security and other issues that could win over additional supporters — without making the path to citizenship so onerous that Democratic support is threatened. Some outside advocates and Democrats including Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., have cautioned that making too many concessions to Republicans could weaken core provisions of the bill, and have argued that it's more important to get a strong bill with 60 votes than a weaker one with 70.
"Our goal now is to pass the strongest legislation possible with as many votes as possible while staying true to our principles, then await what the House is going to do," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said in a floor speech Wednesday.
"I believe some Republicans with no intention of voting for the final bill, no intention, regardless of how it's amended, seek to offer amendments with the sole purpose of derailing this vital reform," he said.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a potential 2016 Republican presidential contender and the author of the bill with the strongest ties to conservatives, said that about half the Senate's Republicans might be prepared to back the measure — but only with stronger border provisions.
An early skirmish took shape over a proposal by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. 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 airports and seaports 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.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., speaking to reporters Wednesday after addressing a faith and immigration forum, promoted an amendment he planned to offer that would have Congress vote annually on whether the border is secure.
"If they would pass my amendment, that would get my vote" for the overall bill, Paul said.
If they want to pass the bill, "they should come to people like me" and ask what we need, he said. So far "I haven't gotten that."
AP Special Correspondent David Espo contributed to this report.