The math on the Senate’s immigration vote

People wait outside an aid center near a truck port of entry in Nogales, Mexico, November 11, 2010.
People wait outside an aid center near a truck port of entry in Nogales, Mexico, November 11, 2010.
Eric Thayer/Reuters

In what was widely considered a test vote for immigration reform, the Senate advanced an amendment that would massively  (and expensively) beef up the nation’s border security. The question now is whether the vote will have any influence on their fellow lawmakers in the more conservative House.

It may sound like an arbitrary game to some, but supporters of reform in the Senate watched the vote-count closely to gauge how much “momentum” might carry over to Congress. The target number being tossed around was 70 votes, which would represent a solid block of Democrats along with a significant minority of Republicans.

“Having served in the House, it makes a difference when a bill comes over with 70 votes or close to,” Arizona Republican Jeff Flake, one of the immigration bill’s lead sponsors, told msnbc moments before the vote. “But the House has their own process and certainly we respect that. “

A plethora of Senators who arrived late because of delayed flights kept observers in suspense for much longer than most ordinary votes. When the floor was finally closed, the tally stood at 67-27. Two Democrats who could not make it in time, Mark Udall and Sherrod Brown, were expected to vote yes, putting its likely total at least at 69. No Democrats voted against the bill, an impressive feat considering several of them–like Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana–are up for re-election in conservative states.

The $38 billion amendment, which would add close to 20,000 border patrol agents, expand efforts to crack down on illegal hiring, and impose policies to track visa overstays, was designed with running up the score in mind. Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine told reporters after her vote that the border buildup was “excessive,” but that she supported it to assuage GOP concerns about the overall legislation. Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, lambasted the bill as “a Christmas wish list for Halliburton” this week, but ultimately voted for it with the stated goal of “increas[ing] Republican support.”

Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, who negotiated the deal with fellow GOPer John Hoeven of North Dakota, told reporters it was necessary not only to bring more Republicans on board but some Democrats as well. He said the final vote was in line with his expectations.

“For anybody who cares about border security, there is no question that this is a far stronger, far stronger provision,” Corker said. “So for any Republican who cares about border sceurity to vote against this amendment–I’ll just leave it there.”

Just because the amendment hit his threshold doesn’t mean the final immigration bill will be there, however. Senator Roger Wicker, Republican of Mississippi, voted “yes” on Corker-Hoeven, but told reporters afterwards he was leaning “no” on the overall bill unless it cracked down on “sanctuary cities” that tolerate undocumented immigrants. On the other side of the ledger, it’s possible a deal on outstanding amendments might bring another Republican or two on board.

Still, the vote represented an unusually strong bipartisan total considering how rarely Democrats and Republicans come together on major legislation these days. But Speaker Boehner has indicated he wants at least half of his own Republican caucus on board with any immigration deal. That the more moderate Senate couldn’t accomplish the feat doesn’t seem too promising in that regard. In the end, the most likely scenario is that Boehner will be forced to choose whether to buck his caucus and pass a bill with mostly Democratic support or to take the heat for letting reform die once more.


The math on the Senate's immigration vote