Senators Celebrate a Job Half-Done on Immigration Reform

It was easy to forget, if only for a second, that the bill is headed to the fractious House rather than the president's desk.
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It had all the optics of a truly historic day. Vice President Joe Biden presided over the Senate vote that would reform the country's broken immigration system and help provide a pathway to citizenship for 11 million people living here illegally. The gallery was full, including dozens of young Hispanic men and women wearing blue and orange shirts with slogans like "11 Million Dreamers."

And yet, when Biden gaveled in the final vote, there was just a smattering of applause. The crowd mustered a chant of "yes we can," before being told to be quiet by Biden, and everyone walked out of the galleries. As big a deal as this vote was -- and by modern Senate standards it was quite an accomplishment -- the day's celebration is very much tempered by the chaos that lies ahead.

With the Republicans in the House having already labeled the bill dead on arrival, it was difficult for the Senate to believably celebrate their achievement. When six members of the Gang of Eight held a press conference after the vote, it felt a bit like a baseball team celebrating getting to the World Series without knowing for sure if it was going to be playing anyone.

But that didn't stop the senators from lavishing praise on one another (the press conference began with a literal back slap laid on Sen. John McCain from Sen. Chuck Schumer). "We all gave. We all Took. We all fought. We all smiled. And at the end of the day we held hands and walked out here together," Schumer said. And at the end of the press conference, he walked arm-in-arm with McCain, very aware that a group of a half dozen photographers were snapping their photos. For posterity. Or something.

That image of bi-partisan unity is not an accident. For comprehensive immigration reform to have a chance, the Senate needs to make the House feel like it has unstoppable momentum behind it. But as much as the 68 Senators who supported the bill would like it to look like there was near-unanimous consent, that's was not the case.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, for example, spent part of his day in a Senate office building rotunda, a tall blond woman from the Tea Party News Network towering over him with her arm around his shoulder.

"Sorry that took so long, I could just talk to you all day," the interviewer told Sessions with a laugh. The Alabaman has become the face of the GOP objection to the Senate bill, telling almost anybody who will ask what he thinks is wrong with it (well, almost anybody. After talking to TPNN, he refused an interview with Telemundo, the Spanish language channel).

"This bill is just made up of poll-tested talking points," Sessions told me as he walked toward his office. "As legislation, it's not nearly effective enough. A bill is not what the talking points say it is, it's what's in it."

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Ben Terris is a staff reporter for National Journal.

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