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Action in Congress today confirmed that there is a huge gulf between the two chambers about how to overhaul immigration policy. The Democratic-led Senate has rejected a pair of amendments that would have made tougher border security a precondition for legalizing millions of immigrants. That defeat is good news for senators who want to pass a bipartisan solution. But on the same day, in the GOP-controlled House, the Judiciary Committee voted to make being in the country illegally a criminal act.
Joining me from the Capitol to talk about these crosswinds in the chambers of Congress is NPR's David Welna. And, David, is this effort by Republicans to add tougher border security measures to the immigration being done to help the legislation or to hurt it?
DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Well, Robert, that's all in the eye of the beholder. Democrats have labeled these GOP attempts to make a path to citizenship contingent on first apprehending nearly everyone who crosses the border illegally poison pills since they say such measures are unreasonable and could delay that path to citizenship indefinitely and make the bill unacceptable to many who now support it. Republicans say they're simply trying to make that bill more palatable for senators who are on the fence and, certainly, to make it more acceptable to House Republicans who generally oppose that path to citizenship.
So far, the Senate solidly defeated three GOP amendments that conditions citizenship on tougher border security. And it does look like a group of moderate Republicans who truly do want a pass an immigration bill might soon be offering a measure of their own on border security that would be more acceptable to those backing the current bill.
SIEGEL: Well, New York Democratic Senator Charles Schumer, who's the leader of the bipartisan Gang of Eight that wrote the Senate bill, says he hopes legislation will get 70 votes in the Senate to give it the kind of momentum needed to pass in the House. At this point, does 70 votes for this bill look realistic?
WELNA: Well, 70 votes, I think, is a stretch, though it likely did not hurt that the Congressional Budget Office released an estimate today that the immigration bill would cut deficits over the next decade by $175 billion. A lot of Democrats would be happy simply getting the 60 votes needed to keep the bill from being filibustered to death.
Majority leader Harry Reid told reporters today he's not aiming to pass a bill that could also pass in the House.
SENATOR HARRY REID: I have talked to my four Democrats in the Gang of Eight, and I've told them concentrate on the Senate. Don't, at this stage, worry about what's going to happen in the House. And I say that no matter what statements the speaker may have given.
SIEGEL: Well, that's the Democratic leader of the Senate. What has Republican House Speaker John Boehner had to say about the immigration bill?
WELNA: Well, the House has done little so far on drawing up its own immigration bill. And last week, Boehner left open the possibility that he'd take up the Senate bill and count on House Democrats providing most of the votes needed to pass it. And that prompted a warning yesterday from a House Republican backbencher that Boehner would lose his job as speaker if he brought a bill to the floor that wasn't supported by a GOP majority.
So today, Boehner met with his fellow Republicans and sought to quell concerns that he might rely on Democrats to pass an immigration bill. Here's what Boehner said to reporters after that meeting.
REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER: Any immigration reform bill that is going to go into law ought to have a majority of both parties' support if we're really serious about making that happen. And so I don't see any way of bringing an immigration bill to the floor that doesn't have the majority support of Republicans.
SIEGEL: Which raises the question: Would an immigration bill backed by a majority of House Republicans be an immigration bill acceptable to the bipartisan group that's trying to pass the Senate bill?
WELNA: Well, Robert, it's hard to see how anything House Republicans pass could get through the Senate. That doesn't mean Boehner won't try pushing through a party-line bill. And we got a taste today of what may be in store when the House Judiciary Committee approved a measure criminalizing being in the country unlawfully. Every vote for that measure came from committee Republicans.
I think while Republicans realized their party might do better at the polls if they pass an immigration bill, since that might help its standing with Latino voters who voted massively for President Obama last November, but individually, those Republican lawmakers could be worse off and possibly lose in primaries if they're seen by their base as being soft on illegal immigration. And that does not bode well for getting a bill through Congress.
SIEGEL: Yeah. Thank you, David.
WELNA: You're welcome, Robert.
SIEGEL: That's NPR's David Welna speaking to us from the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.