WASHINGTON — The Senate on Thursday approved the most significant overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws in a generation with broad support generated by a sense among leading Republicans that the party needed to join with Democrats to remove a wedge between Republicans and Hispanic voters.
The strong 68-32 vote in the often polarized Senate tossed the issue into the House, where the Republican leadership has said that it will not take up the measure and is instead focused on much narrower legislation that would not provide a path to citizenship for the 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the country. Party leaders hope that the Senate action will pressure the House.
Leading up to the final votes, which the senators cast at their desks to mark the import of the moment, members of the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” who drafted the framework of the legislation took to the Senate floor to make a final argument for the measure. Among them was Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, one of the Republicans leading Hispanic voices.
When Rubio finished, the other senators in the group surrounded him on the floor, patting him on the back and offering words of encouragement. “Good job,” one said. “I’m proud of you,” another offered.
The future will show whether voters in Republican presidential primaries share that pride.
After Mitt Romney’s loss in November, top Republicans immediately began formulating a way to improve the party’s standing with Hispanics, who have flocked to Democrats. A group of top Republican political and business officials who support an immigration overhaul met at the downtown Washington office of the anti-tax leader Grover Norquist on Jan. 17 with memories of Romney’s poor showing in their minds.
Optimism ran high at the session, which included the former national party chairman Ed Gillespie and representatives of the US Chamber of Commerce and Republican super PACs.
Now, even after the lopsided Senate vote, the prospects appear grim for the pro-overhaul Republicans. And Rubio, the 42-year-old Cuban-American who is seen as a possible White House contender in 2016, is confronting rising criticism from conservatives for pushing legislation with Democrats such as President Obama and Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York.
“Before the Gang of Eight and the immigration debate, I think many conservatives as well as some establishment Republican folks saw Senator Rubio as a possible bridge candidate between the conservative, Tea Party base of the GOP and more establishment GOP voters,” said Greg Mueller, a conservative public relations executive who opposed the Senate bill. “That position is on much shakier ground today because conservatives and the Tea Party see the immigration bill as a big-government piece of legislation resembling Obamacare.”
On Thursday, Rubio had little cover from his party’s right flank. Not wanting to tempt primary opponents next year, the top two Senate Republican leaders — Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and John Cornyn of Texas — cast “no” votes.
The Senate bill provides a 13-year path to citizenship for the 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the country, as well as tough border security provisions that must be in place before the immigrants can gain legal status.
The legislation — drafted largely behind closed doors by the group of eight senators — brought together an unlikely coalition of Democrats and Republicans, business groups and labor unions, farmworkers and growers, and Latino, gay rights, and immigration advocates. Along the way, the legislation was shaped and tweaked in a series of backroom deals and negotiations that, in many ways, seemed to mirror its inception.
As late as Wednesday night, several members of the bipartisan group, including John McCain of Arizona and his Republican colleague Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, as well as Schumer, found themselves calling Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, trying to shore up support. In separate calls, the senators urged Christie to help persuade Republican Senator Jeffrey S. Chiesa — newly appointed by Christie — to vote for the bill. (Chiesa was one of the 14 Republicans who voted “yes” on Thursday).
All 12 senators from New England voted for the measure, including Democrats Elizabeth Warren and Mo Cowan of Massachusetts, independents Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine, and Republicans Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Susan Collins of Maine.
The bill’s largest, and perhaps most critical, change came in a package that promised to substantially bolster security along the nation’s southern border. The proposal, by Senators Bob Corker of Tennessee and John Hoeven of North Dakota, both Republicans, would devote about $40 billion during the next decade to border enforcement measures, including adding 20,000 Border Patrol agents and 700 miles of fencing.
The amendment, which passed Wednesday with broad bipartisan support, helped bring along reluctant Republicans. But even that measure does not seem to have altered firm House resistance.
Speaker John A. Boehner insisted that whatever immigration measure his chamber took up would have to be supported by a majority of his Republican conference.
“I issued a statement that I thought was pretty clear, but apparently some haven’t gotten the message: The House is not going to take up and vote on whatever the Senate passes,” he said Thursday. “We’re going to do our own bill.”