WASHINGTON — Area lawmakers were divided on beginning the U.S. Senate's first attempt at immigration reform since 2007, with Tennessee and Georgia senators voting to kick off debate Tuesday and Alabama senators voting to prevent it.
Much like opening this year's debate over several gun control measures, Southern Republicans who voted to begin debate on the bill said they don't necessarily support its content. Many changes will be added over weeks of complex legislating, they said, and the final bill may not resemble what's now on the table.
"I see a long, arduous process of hundreds of amendments," U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., said after the Senate voted 82-15 to set the stage for debate.
In an interview Tuesday, U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., likened the immigration debate to the Senate's failed gun control effort earlier this year.
"It's actually in some ways similar, right?" the former Chattanooga mayor mused, citing the issue's complexity. "I think there's going to be a greater willingness on this issue to see it through, to have it fully debated and to try to solve the problems. I don't think we saw that in the [gun control] debate, and it's unfortunate."
Asked for an example, Corker described his "very public" support for "much more, broader-based background checks." He lamented the fact that debate ended before he found a proposal that squared with his ideology.
"The issue is making it work," he said.
Crafted by the bipartisan Gang of Eight senators, the immigration bill provides a 13-year path to citizenship for more than 11 million undocumented immigrants now living in the country.
Supporters say it strengthens border security and tightens hiring standards, while critics see it as a path to amnesty for lawbreakers and an obstacle to jobs for those already legally here.
Leading the latter charge is U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, the Alabama Republican who plans to block the process at every turn. On the Senate floor Tuesday, he spent half an hour pounding his copy of the 867-page bill with his fist and railing against several provisions.
Sessions described a New York jobs fair for elevator operators where he said job seekers outnumbered open positions 20-to-1. He said newly enshrined citizens would add to those long unemployment lines, adding that most immigrants are "overwhelmingly ... low-skill."
"The flow of immigrant labor is depressing wages," he said.
Despite Tuesday's lopsided procedural vote to advance the bill, obstacles remain in the form of homeland security advocates. Even if the bill passes the Democratic-led Senate, border-wary House Republicans are under no obligation to act.
The Senate is expected to vote on the final bill sometime around the Fourth of July. President Barack Obama supports the measure.
"It's the right thing to do," he said Tuesday at the White House. "Now this bill isn't perfect. It's a compromise. And going forward, nobody is going to get everything they want -- not Democrats, not Republicans, not me."
Contact staff writer Chris Carroll at ccarroll@times freepress.com or 423-280-2025.