WASHINGTON - In Spanish and English, the Senate pushed contentious immigration legislation over early procedural hurdles with deceptive ease on Tuesday as President Obama insisted the "moment is now" to give 11 million immigrants in the United States illegally a chance at citizenship.
Despite the lopsided votes, Republicans served notice they will seek to toughen the bill's border security provisions and impose tougher terms on those seeking to gain legal status.
"This bill has serious flaws," said their party leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, one of several who noted pointedly that the 60-vote majority they will demand for passage is hardly assured.
Even before the first proposed changes were considered, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a potential 2016 Republican presidential contender, outlined the complicated state of play for a measure that he helped draft as a member of the bipartisan "Gang of Eight" and now seeks to alter.
With changes to tighten control of the U.S.-Mexican border, he said, about half of the Senate's 46 Republicans are prepared to vote to create the pathway to citizenship that is backed by most or all of the 55 lawmakers aligned with the Democratic majority.
At the White House, Obama said repeatedly the current immigration system is broken, for the foreign-born who live in the United State legally and illegally alike.
Referring to the 11 million currently in the country unlawfully, he said, "Yes, they broke the rules; they didn't wait their turn. They shouldn't be let off easy. They shouldn't be allowed to game the system. But at the same time, the vast majority of these individuals aren't looking for any trouble. They're just looking to provide for their families, contribute to their communities."
At its core, the bill sets out a 13-year journey to citizenship for the millions of immigrants who arrived in the United States illegally through the end of 2011 or who overstayed their visas. That journey would include paying fines and back taxes and other measures. The bill also requires a tighter border to prevent future illegal immigration.
Other key provisions would create a new program for low-skilled workers to enter the country and expand the number of visas for the high-skilled who are particularly in demand by technology firms. The bill also jettisons a decades-old system that favors family ties over education, job skills and other factors in prioritizing prospective legal immigrants.
Obama didn't say so, but the legislation is likely his best hope of achieving a second-term landmark domestic accomplishment.
Numerous Republicans hope to use the issue to repair their party's image among Hispanic voters, a growing portion of the electorate in key states, and a group that polls show gave Obama 71 percent of its votes last year. But the GOP is divided, with tea-party-backed lawmakers and other conservatives resisting anything that smacks of amnesty or otherwise seems to permit legalization without assuring the long border with Mexico in particular is virtually closed to future unlawful immigration.
In the Capitol, Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., chose to deliver a speech on the immigration measure in Spanish. He said it was appropriate to do so since the language "has been spoken in this country since Spanish missionaries founded St. Augustine, Florida, in 1565. Spanish is also spoken by almost 40 million Americans who have a lot at stake in the outcome of this debate," he said in an English translation provided by his office.
Taken together, the two procedural votes had the effect of placing the bill formally before the Senate and open for amendments. Both drew more than 80 votes, reflecting a bipartisan desire to have the debate that now is expected to consume three weeks.
Reaction from Arizona delegation
"I am encouraged that the Senate is proceeding with debate to fix our broken immigration system. We need a bipartisan plan that secures our border, is fair and promotes Arizona's economy and the efficient and legal movement of people and goods through our ports of entry."
- Rep. Ron Barber, D-Arizona
"Arizona has waited far too long for the federal government to act on immigration reform, so it's encouraging that this bill is advancing through regular order. The legislation before us is not perfect, but I'm looking forward to improving it over the next few weeks, and I am optimistic it will pass."
- Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona
"The vote margin was significant despite efforts by Sen. Ted Cruz and others to sabotage the bill. Let's hope, now that we're making real progress, that extremists in the House don't try to destroy common-sense reform for political reasons."
- Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz.