A comprehensive immigration reform bill passed with strong support in the Senate on Thursday, bringing Washington one step closer to accomplishing a major milestone that both Democrats and Republicans have long sought.
Now, however, the bill goes to the House, where, at best, it faces significant headwinds.
The measure passed 68 to 32, with Vice President Joe Biden presiding over the Senate chamber and the senators all casting their votes from their desks. Senators are rarely seated at their desks for votes -- the largely symbolic move is typically reserved for confirming Supreme Court nominees or major votes, such as the 2010 Affordable Care Act vote or the 2011 resolution commending troops and the intelligence community for the killing of Osama bin Laden.
Fourteen Republicans joined 52 Democrats and two Independents in voting for the bill, including Sen. Jeffrey Chiesa, R-N.J., the Republican who was appointed to his seat this month after the death of Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J. No Democrats voted against the bill.
After the legislation passed, President Obama released a statement commending the Senate and urging the public to lobby the House to pass some version of the bill.
"As this process moves forward, I urge everyone who cares about this issue to keep a watchful eye," he said. "Now is the time when opponents will try their hardest to pull this bipartisan effort apart so they can stop commonsense reform from becoming a reality. We cannot let that happen."
The legislation's bipartisan authors delivered passionate arguments in favor of the legislation on the Senate floor Thursday, often making their remarks personal. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., one of the four Republicans who joined four Democrats to shape the bill, spoke about how his parents grew to love America after immigrating from Cuba.
"We focus so much on how immigrants can change America that we forget America has always changed immigrants even more," he said. "That's why I support this reform, not just because I believe in immigrants, but because I believe in America even more."
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., another one of the "gang of eight" senators who drafted the bill, stressed the political advantages of proving to the public that Congress can still function.
"I see this as a significant step toward the U.S. Senate being able to work together in a bipartisan fashion to do something that matters," he said. "Is this bill perfect? No... It is a good solution to a hard problem that can always be made better."
Graham also pointed out that, to extent, the effort should help Republicans.
"I'm doing great among Hispanics in South Carolina. The bad news: there are not very many who vote in a Republican primary," he said, adding that he's attempted to work with his colleagues "to start a process that will pay great dividends."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Thursday that he was "confident" the House would pass the legislation, even though House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said earlier in the day that his chamber will not simply take up whatever the Senate passes.
"We're going to do our own bill through regular order, and it will be legislation that reflects the will of our majority and the will of the American people," he said.
Crafting a bill that could win the majority support of the GOP caucus should prove to be a challenge. The House GOP conference plans to meet July 10 to discuss the way forward on immigration.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., on Thursday urged the House to take up some version of a comprehensive bill, remarking, "Let's just go forward to say what we want is a bill that secures our borders, protects our workers and has a path to citizenship, and see where we go from there."
All of those key elements of the reform effort have proved to be challenging. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., expressed his concern on the Senate floor Thursday on all three of those fronts.
When it comes to protecting workers, Sessions pointed out that if the immigration bill passes, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, average wages in 2023 would be slightly lower than they would be otherwise, in part because of the influx of low-skilled workers.
"I think this legislation has not given thought to the plight of... unemployed Americans," he said.
Sessions also argued the bill does not do enough to enforce laws against illegal immigration, pointing to opposition from officials like the president of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Council.
"Who do we trust?" Sessions asked. USCIS officers, or "our good political senators who work hard but haven't been out on the front line?"
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., similarly said he was voting against the bill because he wasn't confident the legislation would secure the border sufficiently.
"One thing I'm fairly certain about is that we will never resolve the immigration problem on a bipartisan basis either now or in the future until we can prove that the border is secure as a condition for legalization," he said. "This to me continues to be the biggest hurdle to reform."
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was among the bill's backers who insisted the robust and pricey border security provisions -- provisions so robust that they've compelled some immigrant advocacy groups to oppose the entire bill -- would secure the border.
"I have been there and I have seen the technology -- technology developed in Iraq and Afghanistan," McCain said. Along with technology to provide situational awareness at the border, he touted the 700 miles of fending, additional border patrol agents and the e-Verify program in the legislation.