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As Senate Votes to Allow Immigration Debate, Obama Walks a Fine Line

Comprehensive immigration reform moved a big step closer to passage yesterday when the U.S. Senate overwhelmingly voted to consider a White House-backed bill, clearing a hurdle that Republicans have used in the past to delay or kill legislation.

Though the body voted 82-15 to allow the bill to be debated, many Republicans warned that it didn’t necessarily indicate their support for it in its current form. But 30 Republicans did vote in favor of allowing the bill to move to the floor, showing how mindful they are of the growing influence of Hispanics as a voting bloc.

President Obama held an event at the White House yesterday that displayed the delicate dance he must perform. H must show enough support for the immigration bill that his backers, such as African-Americans, white liberals and Hispanics get behind it, but not take enough ownership that it scares away Republicans who will oppose anything that he favors.

As pointed out by NPR, the president’s full-throated embrace of gun control was one of the reasons many Republicans backed off from the legislation, ultimately dooming it in Congress.

“So there’s no reason Congress can’t get this done by the end of the summer. Remember, the process that led to this bill was open and inclusive,” the president said from the White House East Room, backed by a bipartisan array of immigration reform allies representing business, organized labor and immigrant-rights activists, including a former police chief of Los Angeles and New York, William J. Bratton; Thomas J. Donahue, the president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce; Julián Castro, the mayor of San Antonio; Steve Case, an entrepreneur and a founder of AOL; and Richard L. Trumka, the president of the AFL-CIO.

“For months the bipartisan Gang of Eight looked at every issue, reconciled competing ideas, built a compromise that works. Then the Judiciary Committee held numerous hearings. More than a hundred amendments were added, often with bipartisan support. And the good news is every day that goes by, more and more Republicans and Democrats are coming out to support this common-sense immigration reform bill,” he said. “And I’m sure the bill will go through a few more changes in the weeks to come. But this much is clear: If you genuinely believe we need to fix our broken immigration system, there’s no good reason to stand in the way of this bill.”

As soon as the Senate voted to allow the bill to be considered, senators jumped in to add amendments.

Iowa Republican Sen. Charles Grassley introduced a plan to require the Obama administration to certify “effective control over the entire southern border” for a period of six months before any of the 11 million undocumented residents in the United States could apply for legal status.

“Border security first, legalize second,” Grassley said.

For his part, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat and a chief supporter of the bill, introduced three amendments, including one to provide to lawfully married same-sex couples the protection that other spouses now enjoy.

Leahy had pulled the measure, which would allow U.S. citizens to seek permanent resident status (a green card) for a foreign same-sex partner, from the bill last month because he knew it would be opposed by Republicans, but he added it back in yesterday.

“Seeking equal protection under our laws … is the right thing to do,” said Leahy.

Nearly 50 amendments had been filed by late Tuesday, showing how arduous the process will be to get to a final bill that could pass the Senate—and then pass the more conservative House.

“This bill isn’t perfect; it’s a compromise,” the president said at the carefully choreographed White House event. “Going forward, nobody is going to get everything they want. Not Democrats, not Republicans, not me.”

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said although he voted to allow debate, he would vote against the bill unless major changes were made.

“These include, but are not limited to, the areas of border security, government benefits and taxes,” he said.

“If you’re serious about actually fixing the system, then this is the vehicle to do it,” Obama said. “If you’re not serious about it, if you think that a broken system is the best America can do, then I guess it makes sense to try to block it.”

House Speaker John Boehner said on ABC that reforming the immigration system was his top legislative priority this year.

“I think by the end of the year, we could have a bill,” he told ABC.

Asked if it would be a bill that could pass the Democratic-led Senate and be signed into law by Obama, Boehner said: “No question.”

Though he had to walk a fine line, Obama wasn’t above making a thinly veiled racial reference intended to mock the bill’s opponents.

“The notion that somehow those who came through Ellis Island had all their papers right (long laughter from the audience), you know, had — had — had checked every box and followed procedures as they were getting on that boat — they were looking for a better life, just like these families,” he said.

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