Reporting from Washington and Los Angeles — The Senate began a rare weekend session Saturday morning, poised to battle over two of the most contentious social issues in this lame-duck session, whether to create a path for citizenship for some illegal immigrants and whether to allow gays to openly serve in the military.
Majority Leader Harry Reid said that the Senate would vote first on cloture on the immigration measure, known as the Dream Act, and then take up the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell,” bill later in the day.
The Dream Act, formally known as the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, provides a path to legalize those immigrants who arrived in the United States illegally as children and who attend college or serve in the military.
Proponents argued the measure is a way of legalizing people who have been educated in the United States where they have lived most of their lives. It was also a way of recognizing those who have served in the military.
But opponents see the measure as the first step in the battle over broader immigration reform, a politically contentious issue and one that conservatives have fiercely fought.
In his opening arguments, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Alabama) denounced what he called an amnesty bill for those who entered the country illegally.
“The bill at its core is a reward for illegal activities,” said Sessions, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee. He also said the current bill is the fifth version of the measure and that none had gone through the committee hearing process.
The House approved the DREAM Act earlier this month, 216-198.
After the DREAM Act, the Senate is set to deal with a procedural vote on whether to allow gays and lesbian to openly serve in the military. If passed, the full Senate will debate whether to repeal the 1993 “don’t ask, don’t tell” law.
At least 60 votes are needed to advance the repeal and some Republicans are expected to join with Democrats to move along the measure which has already passed the House, 250-174. If repealed, gays and lesbians would be allowed to openly serve for the first time. More than 13,500 people have been dismissed from the military under the law.
“Don’t ask, don’t tell is wrong,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) in his opening remarks Saturday morning. “I don’t care who you love. If you love this country enough to risk your life for it, you shouldn’t have to hide who you are. You ought to be able to serve.”
A group of Republicans, led in Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) oppose the repeal during the current time of war. That position is backed by chiefs of the Army and Marine Corps who have warned Congress that repeal could pose problems.
But proponents of repeal cited a recently released Pentagon study that concluded that gays could serve openly without there being any impact on combat effectiveness. The report said that two-thirds of troops predicted little impact if the law is repealed.