A supermajority of senators passed a bipartisan immigration reform bill that would grant 11 million undocumented immigrants immediate legal status and a path to citizenship while sending $30 billion to the southern border to beef up security.
Supporters hope the historic vote in the Senate, where lawmakers have been debating the bill for weeks, will put some wind at the back of a proposal to bring undocumented immigrants out of the shadows. But the future of a comprehensive reform bill -- even one that includes a "border surge" to double the border patrol and flow new money into security -- is anything but certain.
The border security provision was added Wednesday and helped win the support of more Republicans. The final vote was 68-32 with support from 14 Republicans.
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D, N.Y.), an author of the bill, said the strong vote would create a "drum beat" of pressure for his Republican colleagues over in the House of Representatives to act on immigration reform.
President Obama, in a written statement from his trip to Africa, praised the Senate for "bringing us a critical step closer to fixing our broken immigration system once and for all."
Senators sat at their desks to demonstrate the historic nature of the vote. Vice President Joe Biden presided over the vote. Asked afterward if he thought the bill could pass the House, Biden said, "Well, I'm hopeful."
"We're poised to pass a historic immigration bill. It's landmark legislation that will secure our borders and help 11 million people get right with the law," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) on Thursday before the vote.
Immigration reform has split Republicans, still smarting after a bitter defeat in the 2012 general election.
Sen. Marco Rubio, the party's young star from Florida, and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), its 2008 presidential nominee, joined in with a "Gang of 8" bipartisan senators to write the first draft of the legislation that passed Thursday.
He called his own immigrant story a reminder, "sometimes, that we focus so much on how immigrants could change America, that we forget that America has always changed immigrants even more," said Rubio, the child of immigrants from Cuba, in a speech in support of the bill on Thursday.
But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R, Ky.) said he would not vote for the plan and predicted it would not pass the House of Representatives in its current form. But he argued that the current immigration bill before the Senate highlights the importance of strengthening the border and called it the key to achieving immigration reform.
In order for a bill to even be considered in the House, Speaker John Boehner (R, Ohio) has said it would need to have support from a majority of Republicans.
Today's vote in the Senate, while bipartisan with 14 GOP votes, fell well short of gaining support from a majority of half of the chamber's 46 Republicans. No Democrats opposed the bill in the Senate.
In the House, where Republicans are more keen on a piecemeal rather than a comprehensive approach, there are efforts by the House Judiciary Committee and also a bipartisan group of Congressmen to write their own version of immigration reform. If some version of immigration reform can pass the House, it would have to be reconciled with the legislation that passed the Senate today.
The Senate bill, originally drafted by a bipartisan group of senators called the Gang of 8 in mid-April, is controversial for some because it would open a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently in the country. Some view that as amnesty.
"The amnesty will occur, but the enforcement is not going to occur, and the policies for future immigration are not serving the national interest," said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who has emerged as a chief opponent of the bill.
The border security amendment, by Sens. John Hoeven (R-N.D.), and Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), which requires a doubling of border patrol agents, fencing, drones and sensors, was officially added to the legislation Wednesday.
"The path to actually making a law is fairly clear at this point. Success on immigration reform runs through the border," McConnell said on the Senate floor.
The border security measures added in the amendment would be "triggers" that would have to be achieved before citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants could be granted.
The Congressional Budget Office announced last week that the legislation would boost the economy by increasing the Gross Domestic Product by 3.3 percent by the year 2023, and by 5.4 percent by 2033. The CBO said it would also lower the federal deficit by $197 billion over the first 10 years, and $700 billion over the next 20 years.