ANALYSIS: Senate Vote Reveals Shift in Immigration Politics

July 2, 2013
Thursday's landmark Senate vote on immigration revealed a shift among Democrats on the hot-button issue of immigration

Thursday’s Senate vote reveals a shift among Democrats on the hot-button issue of immigration

DENVER – Political pundits have been quick to cite last week’s bipartisan Senate vote in favor of a plan to grant legal status to an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants as evidence of a shift within the GOP on the hot-button issue of immigration.  But Thursday’s vote tally may suggest an even more significant — albeit less reported — shift among Democrats.

Thursday’s lopsided 68-32 vote saw 14 Republicans cross the aisle to join all of the chamber’s 52 Democrats and two left-leaning Independents to pass the bipartisan Schumer-Rubio bill, legislation that would allow undocumented immigrants to remain in the U.S., authorize the completion of a long-delayed 700-mile section of border fencing, implement an entry-exit tracking system for foreigners, authorize the addition 20,000 new Border Patrol agents, and revamp the nation’s legal immigration system.

The landmark vote was the first of its kind on any significant “comprehensive” immigration proposal since 2007, when the Senate took up a proposal championed by then-Senator Ted Kennedy (D-Massachusetts) and Senator John McCain (R-Arizona).

Like the Schumer-Rubio measure that cleared the Senate last week, McCain-Kennedy blended the immediate legalization of undocumented immigrants with a number of phased-in security enhancements, such as new border fencing, steep increases in Border Patrol staffing, and the expansion of an employment verification system.

And like the Schumer-Rubio bill, the McCain-Kennedy bill attracted significant support from Republican Senators, 12 of whom ultimately voted for the measure – just two fewer than the 14 GOP votes garnered by the Schumer-Rubio proposal last week.

Yet McCain-Kennedy failed on a 46-53 vote that saw 15 of the chamber’s 49 Democrats and one left-leaning Independent join 37 Republicans to defeat the legislation.

By comparison, not a single Democrat voted against last week’s comprehensive immigration measure.

Among the 12 Republicans who supported McCain-Kennedy in 2007 were several lawmakers who have since left the Congress, including former Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter (who later switched parties) and Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel (who now serves as President Obama’s Secretary of Defense).  The two were joined by eight other now-former Republican Senators:  Bob Bennett (R-Utah), Larry Craig (R-Idaho), Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), John Kyl (R-Arizona), Trent Lott (R-Mississippi), Richard Lugar (R-Indiana), Mel Martinez (R-Florida), and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine).

In fact, just two of the GOP Senators who backed the 2007 bill – John McCain (R-Arizona) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) – are still in office.

On the other side of the aisle, several Democrats who opposed the bipartisan 2007 plan ended up voting for the Schumer-Rubio proposal last week;  Senators Max Baucus (D-Montana), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Mary Landrieu (D-Louisiana), Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri), Mark Pryor (D-Arkansas), Jay Rockefeller (D-W.V.), Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan) and John Tester (D-Montana).

Vermont socialist Bernie Sanders too backed the Schumer-Rubio bill after opposing McCain-Kennedy in 2007.

Five Republican lawmakers who voted against the 2007 legalization proposal also voted for the Schumer-Rubio plan last week; Senators Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Bob Corker (R-Tennessee), Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).

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