Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) discusses the immigration… (Jim Lo Scalzo / European…)
WASHINGTON — The sweeping immigration overhaul bill received a boost Tuesday as senators appeared to narrow their differences on border security and the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office reported that newly legal immigrants would provide more than enough new tax revenue, fees and economic growth to offset the bill's costs.
The budget report gives momentum to the legislation and could be particularly important in attracting Republicans in both the Senate and House who have made spending issues a priority.
"The Senate immigration bill reiterates what economic conservatives have been saying all along: that reform is an economic policy opportunity," said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former budget office director and advisor to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). "Immigration reform would be an unambiguous policy trifecta: higher growth, significantly reduced deficits and a rational labor policy."
Senators in the bipartisan group that wrote the bill had waited anxiously for weeks for the budget report, and the analysis showed they had largely achieved an overhaul that would not add to the nation's red ink.
The CBO report said the bill would cut the deficit by $197 billion over 10 years. During the first five years after the bill's passage, the unemployment rate would increase slightly, by 0.1%, and average wages would be slightly lower. But over time, the CBO projected, the bill would cause wages and employment to rise, and economic output would bump up by 3.3% over the decade.
"This report is a huge momentum boost for immigration reform," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), one of the bill's authors. "Immigration reform is not only the right thing to do to stay true to our nation's principles, it will also boost our economy, reduce the deficit and create jobs."
The leader of the opposition in the Senate, Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions, said the CBO report did not reflect the higher costs that he believed the bill would impose on state and local governments.
In the Senate, the immigration overhaul has been stalled for a week as senators search for ways to toughen the bill's provisions on border security — a key to winning over several uncommitted Republicans — without disrupting the legislation's core component, a 13-year path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million immigrants living in the U.S. without legal status.
The focus in the Senate has been on bringing enough Republicans on board to send the bill to the House by a sizable margin.
A key issue has been how to determine whether the government has achieved its goals for a secure border with Mexico and whether immigrants seeking citizenship should be required to wait until that happens. The bill requires the Department of Homeland Security to have a plan in place to stop 90% of illegal crossings and provides up to $6.5 billion to pay for surveillance drones, troops and a double-layer fence to reach that goal.
But it would allow most immigrants who entered the country illegally or overstayed their visas to obtain provisional legal status in the meantime and would allow them to get green cards after 10 years whether the 90% goal is reached or not.
Many Republicans say they need to have a guarantee of not just a border plan, but results before those immigrants can gain green cards.
Experts say that guarantee is almost impossible, and immigrant advocates say it could negate the promise of eventual citizenship.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has set a Fourth of July deadline to finish the bill, giving senators until the end of next week to wrap up.
Conversations buzzed across the Senate floor Tuesday as senators, cloistered in unusual bipartisan groups, worked on compromise language that could propel the bill forward.
"I'm encouraged, but we still have a ways to go," McCain said. By Wednesday, he said, "you will know whether this thing is coming together or split apart."
The moment arrived none too soon for supporters of the overhaul: The Republican-led House pushed forward with its own measure Tuesday as House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) indicated he was unlikely to pursue a bill that did not draw majority support from Republicans.
House Republicans have focused primarily on border enforcement and have shown little interest in the path to citizenship. The House Judiciary Committee is working on a bill that would give states more authority to enforce federal immigration laws. It drew little Democratic support.
Two GOP border amendments have been rejected by the Senate, including one from Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) that would have required 750 miles of double-layer fencing to be built, at a cost of $1 billion, before immigrants could get green cards.
"It's time that we follow through on promises of a more secure border," Thune said.
The proposal emerging Tuesday comes from a newer participant in the immigration battles, first-term Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.), who is working with Republicans, including Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, who have shown an interest in the bipartisan overhaul.
Hoeven wants Congress to craft its own border security plan and have agencies in addition to Homeland Security, perhaps the Pentagon or the Government Accountability Office, help determine whether the border has become secure.
"We put a strategic plan in there that they've got to take," Hoeven said. "They've got to have some verifiable standards, metrics, measurements that people can agree on."
Securing the votes of Hoeven and his allies could make the difference between an immigration overhaul that squeaks out of the Senate and one that passes with a big enough majority to push the House to act.