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State of Play: The Next Few Weeks for the Senate Gang of 8 Immigration Reform Bill

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Next week, the Senate will begin consideration of the immigration reform bill. That legislation passed in the Senate Judiciary Committee on May 21, 2013 by a vote of 13 – 5. Because it has been so rare to see a real debate in the Senate on legislation with bipartisan support, we wanted to give an overview of what to expect over the next few weeks. This is based on our best estimates of what will happen.

This week, the Senate will continue working on the “farm bill” and hope to finish it on June 6.  The Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid (D-NV), will likely ask for unanimous consent to move to the immigration bill on June 6 or 7.  Today, on the Senate floor, Senator Reid discussed the process moving ahead:

“Even if we we’ve not completed action on the farm bill or the student loans proposals, we’re going to bring immigration to the floor next week. Immigration is broken, it needs to be fixed,” Reid said in his opening remarks on Tuesday.

Reid said it’s his understanding that Minority Leader Mitch McConnell will allow the bill to come to the floor without having to clear a procedural vote, and Reid said he is “grateful” to his Republican colleague for not pushing for cloture.

That last part is important. In the Senate, every Senator has the power to stop progress. Last month, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) indicated he wouldn’t engage in a filibuster of Reid’s request to move to the immigration bill, which Reid indicated today was still valid.  Some other member of McConnell’s caucus (for example, Jeff Session (R-AL) or David Vitter (R-LA)) could still object to the unanimous consent. If there is a Republican objection, Reid will file cloture on the motion to proceed, setting up a vote for June 10 or 11.  Either way, debate will start in earnest the week of June 10 and we could see some amendments voted on that week.

We’re also waiting for the “score” from the Congressional Budget Office. That’s the estimate of how much the legislation will cost. Getting the score is critically important and will set the fiscal parameters of the debate.  Because of all the fines and fees included in the legalization program, Gang of 8 authors of the bill expect that the bill will pay for itself and will not add to the deficit.

Reid has indicated he’ll spend three weeks of floor time on the bill.  Things may start slow, with most amendments–especially on difficult issues–being voted on in the last week. The Senate will adjourn for the Fourth of July recess on Friday, June 28th. The Senate is usually in session from Tuesday through Thursday, but will add days if needed to ensure this bill is finished by the end of June.

At the beginning of the debate, we’ll get an indication of how much debate time will be given to each side. Time is always evenly divided between the Majority and Minority.  On the Democratic side, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), as Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, will manage the bill and will be working with Reid and the Gang of 8 Democrats Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Bob Menendez (D-NJ), and Michael Bennet (D-CO) as well as other supporters. For Republicans, their time will likely be divided between proponents and opponents. Gang of 8 Republicans John McCain (R-AZ), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) will take the proponent side. It’s likely the opposition will be led by Chuck Grassley (R-IA) or Sessions.

We’ll also start hearing about amendments. Just because an amendment is filed, doesn’t mean it will be considered.  In fact, often only a small percentage of amendments that are filed are actually considered on the Floor. Some of the amendments will be poison pills, offered by bill opponents in an attempt to try to blow up the deal. Anything offered by Sessions and Vitter will fit that category — and probably any amendment from John Cornyn (R-TX) or Ted Cruz (R-TX).  Their goal isn’t to improve the bill, their goal is to kill it.

Time will also be allotted to debate the amendments. Many (typically non-controversial) amendments will just be accepted, but some amendments will emerge as true points of contention.  Controversial amendments may require a 60-vote threshold to pass instead of a simple majority.  We’ll provide in-depth analyses as we figure that out, but in the meantime you can review a list of amendments filed during the Committee consideration and whether they were voted on here. Some of the amendments that weren’t voted on in Committee will come up on the Floor.  It is also possible that some amendments that were offered and withdrawn (or voted on and failed) during the Committee markup will come up again during the Floor debate.

There may be times when you start watching C-SPAN2 expecting to watch the immigration debate, but you’ll see Senators talking about other issues. At other times, there won’t be anyone talking on the Senate floor about anything.  That’s the way the Senate does its business.

By the last week of June, there will be actual daily debate and the intensity will increase. At some point, Reid will move to end debate and file cloture on the bill. Given past experience, it’s likely that a Republican senator will object to the cloture motion, requiring another 60-vote margin to overcome his objection.  After that, there will be one last vote on final passage, which will require only a simple majority.

If everything goes according to schedule, we can expect the vote on final passage towards the end of the last week of June.