Skip to content

Immigration Bill Vote Counting Is a Three-Dimensional Chess Game

The Senate’s initial test votes on immigration, coming up on Tuesday, hold no real hope for suspense. It’s what comes next that will keep this city and the nation riveted for the rest of the month.

The first roll call votes squashing a filibuster on a motion to proceed look to be overwhelmingly bipartisan now that both top Republicans have committed to voting “yes.” Their assent insulates the GOP from charges of obstructionism on the biggest domestic policy initiative of the year.

The next dozen or so workdays promise plenty of drama. That’s because of the promise for a revived senatorial tradition of genuine debate on amendments, some of which could upend or intensify the soft foundation of bipartisan support for the underlying bill.

A climactic roll call is on course for just before the Capitol goes dark for the July Fourth recess. The vote breakdown will be the strongest possible signal of whether President Barack Obama will be signing history-book-worthy legislation in his second term.


A majority of less than 70, on the other hand, will cause the Republican opposition in the House to swell and solidify so fast as to crush momentum for an immigration overhaul in this Congress.

That a swing of so few Senate votes can make the difference between failure and success is what has directed so much attention to the House in the past week.

Republicans on each side of the Capitol have been sizing up how much their colleagues on the other side are willing to move, either to get a bill they could all live with or to justify killing the legislation.

When almost 100 House conservatives met last week with two clusters of GOP senators, one working to advance the “gang of eight” approach and the other looking to significantly undermine it, their message was the same: Take seriously our demands for something much stronger than the current Senate version on bolstering border security; if not, the Senate will be wasting its time because we won’t even entertain talk of a path to citizenship.

To underscore the point, 221 House Republicans (all but six) voted the next day to deny funding for Obama’s policy against deporting younger people brought illegally into the country as children. The Senate bill, which includes language similar to the bill known as the DREAM Act, would make Obama’s policy permanent.

What the senators don’t yet know, and what that House vote only made less clear, is whether meeting the still-vague demands about the border crackdown will guarantee something even close to a majority of the majority supporting the rest of the bill.

Until there’s a high degree of confidence in that outcome, plenty of currently undecided GOP senators won’t be willing to cast the still-risky vote in favor of a citizenship rubric. Polls may say plainly that doing so is essential to their party’s long-term political viability, but their conservative constituents continue to vehemently deride even a 15-year path as a government reward for years of illegal behavior.

Put another way, the dispositive bloc of Senate Republicans won’t vote “yes” unless they’re confident the House will do the same. And the crucial bloc of House Republicans won’t be open to getting to “yes” until they know precisely what legislative question the Senate is asking.

All that mutual wariness has revived the use of one of the Hill’s favorite intransitive verbs: “To get Btu-ed,” which essentially means to be legislatively  hung out to dry by people in your own party.

Back in 1993, President Bill Clinton proposed to trim the deficit with a tax based on the heat content (as in: British thermal units) of most forms of energy. He dragooned his own party to get it through the House, then he abandoned the plan in the face of unyielding Democratic opposition in the Senate. That caused many House Democrats to wonder angrily why their own president had forced them to put their political careers on the line for no good reason.

Now, it’s Senate Republicans who fear getting Btu-ed by their GOP colleagues in the House. No one is more interested in preventing that from happening than Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, whose reputation as legislative workman rests — as much as his presidential hopes — on his ability to build support in both halves of Congress for the potential breakthrough legislation he helped write.

If he concludes that no security language that might be acceptable to the Senate would get the House off its piecemeal and no-path-to-citizenship approach, and then walks away from his own bill, immigration overhaul is a dead letter.

But if he gambles that he can help sell some language toughened up just enough as a starting point for talks in the House, and sticks with his own bill on the vote for passage, then fellow 2016 White House aspirant Rand Paul of Kentucky will probably vote “yes” as well.

Paul’s vote, in turn, would likely create sufficient cover to allow his up-in-2014 home-state colleague Mitch McConnell to go along. And it’s the minority leader’s nod that has the potential to bring a dozen or more from the caucus into the fold, pushing the majority toward the success-is-inevitable tipping point.

One Republican to watch as a bellwether: the 46th and newest of the bunch, Jeff Chiesa of New Jersey. Though he’s a placeholder for only the next four months, he said last week that his time as state attorney general had convinced him he needs to see stronger border security provisions before he can vote for the bill.

Let the debate begin.

Recent Stories

Fiscal 2024 spending finale starts to take shape

Security fence to go up at Capitol for State of the Union

California has no shortage of key House races on Tuesday

Alabama, Arkansas races to watch on Super Tuesday

Over the Hill — Congressional Hits and Misses

House GOP reverses course on Jan. 6 footage, will no longer blur faces