In Historic Vote, Senate Passes Bipartisan Immigration Bill

But this may be as far as it goes.

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Yuri Gripas / REUTERS

The Senate voted to pass a sweeping overhaul of U.S. immigration laws on Thursday, sending its landmark bill to the House of Representatives with a strong showing of bipartisan support and setting up the next phase in the fight to reform the immigration system for the first time in a generation.

The measure was approved 68 to 32, with 14 Republicans joining all 52 Democrats and two Democratic-leaning independents to back the bill. The final tally fell just shy of the 70-vote target touted by its architects. But winning a two-thirds majority was a significant achievement that ships the legislation across the Capitol on a wave of momentum.

Six months ago, much of Washington was skeptical that such a contentious bill could survive a polarized Senate. But the eight Republicans and Democrats who drafted the measure did a shrewd job of uniting powerful stakeholders from all bands of the political spectrum. They engineered agreements and maintained harmony between bitter adversaries: liberals and conservatives, union bosses and business lobbies, high-tech firms, agricultural interests, immigration advocates and Republican strategists.

(MORE: Immigration Bill Faces Tough Odds in the House)

Democrats supported the measure unanimously, a sharp contrast from the failed effort to pass comprehensive immigration reform under George W. Bush. A tough and costly border-security deal, brokered by a pair of conservatives, brought along more than a dozen Republicans — a sign of the party’s recognition that it must repair its relationship with Latinos to compete on the national political playing field.

The Senate bill offers undocumented immigrants who entered the U.S. before 2012 a 13-year path to citizenship, while also reforming visa programs, requiring employers to verify the eligibility of their workers and beefing up security by doubling the amount of agents stationed on the southern border. “Today is a good day for the Senate, and for the country,” said Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, who helped steer the measure through committee and managed it on the floor.

According to an analysis by the progressive Atlas Project based on data from Kantar Media, immigration-reform supporters outspent opponents on broadcast media by a ratio of about 3 to 1. Though right-wing critics decried what they said were the bill’s flaws, the broad grassroots outcry that helped sink the Bush-backed immigration-reform bill never materialized.

The vote itself was gilded by all the ceremony the Senate can summon. Vice President Joe Biden presided. Majority Leader Harry Reid required members to vote from their wooden desks, rather than with a casual flick of the thumb. Though the practice has been technically required since 1984, these formal roll calls are reserved for occasions of great moment. “They do it when it’s a particularly important vote,” says associate Senate historian Betty Koed. In recent years, such votes have included passage of Obamacare, a resolution commending the military and intelligence communities on the killing of Osama bin Laden, and the confirmation of Supreme Court justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor. When Biden announced the final tally, a chant of “Yes We Can” — Barack Obama’s old campaign war cry — broke out in the chamber gallery.

But Thursday’s triumph may be the last one worth celebrating for some time to come. While polls have shown that the majority of Americans support the effort to revamp the U.S. immigration system, the measure will struggle to overcome strong objections among many members in the Republican-controlled House. “The House has no capacity to move that bill in its entirety,” Representative Peter Roskam, the House Republican deputy whip, told reporters on Thursday. “It is a pipe dream to think that that bill is going to go to the floor and be voted on.”

House Republicans will begin to sketch out their immigration strategy at a conference meeting on July 10, after Congress returns from a week-long recess. Speaker John Boehner has said that any bill that emerges from the House should have a majority of support from both parties. But it is hard to fathom a compromise that would satisfy both the Republican majority, which is leery of comprehensive reform and prefers a piecemeal approach that enforces security provisions first, and the bipartisan Senate bill that ties border security to the path to citizenship.

Though the future of the bill is murky, advocates heralded Thursday’s vote as a triumph — and perhaps a harbinger that the polarization which has frozen the Senate has begun to thaw. “I see this as a significant step toward the U.S. Senate being able to work together in a bipartisan fashion to do something significant,” said South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham, one of eight senators who spent months crafting the legislation. “This should give you a little bit of hope.”

MORE: Boehner in a Bind on Immigration