WASHINGTON — The Senate overwhelmingly approved a historic overhaul of the country's immigration laws on Thursday, but supporters should keep one thing in mind.
That was the easy part.
The legislation now goes to the Republican-controlled House, where hard-line conservatives are so opposed to a pathway to citizenship for those living illegally in this country that they will try to kill any immigration proposal that starts to move.
Even many of the more moderate House Republicans will be looking for tougher border security and enforcement provisions than the ones included in the legislation that was passed by the Senate 68-32.
Despite the wide margin, the only senator from Nebraska or Iowa to support the bill was Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa.
His home-state colleague, Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, voted against it. So did Sens. Mike Johanns and Deb Fischer, both Nebraska Republicans.
The list of complaints from Senate Republicans opposing the bill was long, but the most-cited was what they described as weak border security provisions.
“Without a fully secure border, the United States will repeat the mistakes of the past and there will be no lasting solution,” Fischer said after the vote.
Supporters hope that Thursday's vote will pressure the House to act on what is a top priority for President Barack Obama during his second term.
In a statement, Obama praised the bill as a good compromise that stayed true to his principles.
He described it as the “most aggressive border security plan in our history” and a bill that offers a path to citizenship for an estimated 11 million people living in the country illegally.
“Today, the Senate did its job. It's now up to the House to do the same,” Obama said.
“As this process moves forward, I urge everyone who cares about this issue to keep a watchful eye. Now is the time when opponents will try their hardest to pull this bipartisan effort apart so they can stop common-sense reform from becoming a reality.”
The Senate bill itself is dead on arrival in the House, where Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, reiterated Thursday that he won't bring up any immigration proposal unless it has the support of a majority of Republican members. The House Judiciary Committee has been moving forward on smaller pieces of enforcement-focused legislation.
Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, said he doesn't want to see those smaller bills advance because they could become vehicles for immigration policies more in line with the Senate's bill, which he strongly opposes.
“My position is don't bring anything to the floor,” King told The World-Herald on Thursday. “Nothing good can come from that.”
King said dozens — even scores — of House Republicans share his position. He said he will be looking to increase those numbers in the weeks ahead. Part of the strategy for killing the bill could be a simple delay.
Supporters are anxious to see the House act before it leaves for its August break, but King said that would be acting too quickly on such a complex issue.
“If you're going to transform America in perpetuity, it ought to be a policy that can withstand public scrutiny through the August break,” King said. “They can come back in September, and if the public supports amnesty, just maybe, just maybe it's a good policy.”
Others said something must be done to fix what most agree is a broken system.
“The status quo is unacceptable. ... We won't be doing our job if we do nothing,” said Rep. Adrian Smith, R-Neb.
Smith hastened to add that doesn't mean passing just anything. He said he is concerned that the Senate bill's border security provisions are lacking.
Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., described the Senate bill as “amnesty” and criticized its approach to border security.
“If you aren't willing to stop the next wave of folks that will come over illegally, then there's no reason to do this,” Terry said.
He predicted that the House will find a way to approve a package of popular measures such as employer verification and visas for highly skilled workers. It will then have to negotiate with the Senate.
“Bottom line — lots of drama yet to come,” Terry said. “The season finale has yet to happen.”
However rocky the road ahead, the bill's supporters took a moment Thursday to savor their victory.
When the final vote tally was announced, supporters in the chamber's galleries began chanting “Yes We Can!”
Rebecca Gould, executive director of Nebraska Appleseed, a nonprofit, nonpartisan law project, hailed the vote as a historic achievement that means great things for the state.
In a statement, she said, “We eagerly look forward to working with our state's representatives to pass a productive House immigration bill later this summer that will reflect our Nebraska values of community, humanity, decency, and hard work that will move us forward as a country.”