The U.S. Senate voted to take up immigration legislation as Mitch McConnell, the chamber’s top Republican, demanded more stringent border-security requirements and said the bill has "serious flaws."
The 84-15 vote opens the measure for proposed changes. McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, told reporters today that a border-security proposal by Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn was "the key amendment" to the immigration legislation.
"There will need to be major changes to this bill if it’s going to become law," including on border security, government benefits for immigrants and taxes, McConnell said.
Democrats are pressing for passage of comprehensive immigration legislation that President Barack Obama has made a priority after Hispanic voters gave him 71 percent support in the November election. The bill would create a path to citizenship for about 11 million undocumented U.S. immigrants while tightening security at the border with Mexico.
The Senate measure includes $4.5 billion for tighter border security. It requires 100 percent surveillance and a 90 percent apprehension rate along the U.S.-Mexico border before any undocumented immigrant in the U.S. could qualify for permanent legal residency and eventual citizenship.
Cornyn wants to impose more border-security requirements before undocumented U.S. immigrants can seek legal status. In a floor speech today, he said his proposal wasn’t intended to splinter the bill’s bipartisan support.
"My amendment demands results," Cornyn said, adding that the Senate plan "is satisfied with just more promises, promises that have never been kept."
Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said today that if lawmakers have proposals to improve the bill’s border security provisions, "let’s take a look at it." Later, he told reporters that the Texas senator’s amendment "would be a poison pill" that would kill the legislation.
Florida Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican co-sponsor of the bill, is crafting a border security amendment with the goal of gaining Republican support.
New York Senator Charles Schumer, a Democratic co-sponsor of the immigration measure, has said members of his party would oppose changing the border-security standards that must be met before immigrants can seek legalization.
The last significant congressional effort to revise U.S. immigration laws stalled in 2007. Republicans are trying to reconnect with Hispanics after Obama won most of the constituency’s votes in his re-election.
In an earlier procedural vote today, the Senate agreed 82-15 to advance the bill. Democratic leaders want to pass the legislation by July 4 and send it to the House.
House Speaker John Boehner said the Senate measure doesn’t go far enough toward improving border security and enforcement. Still, the Ohio Republican said in an interview aired today on ABC’s "Good Morning America" there was "no question" that "by the end of the year, we could have a bill" passed by both houses of Congress and signed by the president.
Obama said today the Senate bill, S. 744, is the best chance in years to fix the immigration system.
"If you’re actually serious and sincere about fixing a broken system, this is the vehicle to do it, and now’s the time to get it done," the president said at the White House. Obama urged supporters to "call and tweet your senators and tell them, ‘Don’t kick this problem down the road.’"
An administration statement today that "strongly supports" the measure said the president "looks forward to working with the Congress to further improve this bill."