WASHINGTON -- The bipartisan push to overhaul the nation's immigration laws took a major step forward Monday when the Senate endorsed a proposal to substantially bolster security along the nation's southern borders, as part of a measure that would provide a path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants already in the country.
The 67-27 vote prevented any filibuster of the plan to devote roughly $40 billion over the next decade to border enforcement measures, including nearly doubling the number of border agents to 40,000 and completing 700 miles of fencing. Opponents of the enhanced security questioned whether the steps would ever be taken and said the legislation should require that the border be secure before undocumented immigrants could seek legal status.
But the solid bipartisan support for the border security proposal by two Republican senators, Bob Corker of Tennessee and John Hoeven of North Dakota, suggested that advocates of the overhaul had the votes needed to clear remaining hurdles and pass the legislation, which was drafted by a bipartisan "Gang of Eight" senators, perhaps before lawmakers leave town for the July 4 recess.
Senators and aides said Monday's vote offered a preliminary glimpse of how many senators, roughly, will vote for the bill's final passage. Several senators missed the vote because of flight delays, and Democrats said they could have landed at least 69 votes had all legislators been present.
"The bill has been improved dramatically tonight by this vote," Mr. Corker said. "Hopefully there will be other improvements made with other amendments, and my sense is we're going to pass an immigration bill out of the United States Senate, which will be no doubt historic."
Earlier Monday, speaking at the White House to business leaders in favor of the legislation, President Barack Obama call for speedy action: "Now is the time to do it," he said.
The Corker-Hoeven plan helped bring on board more than a dozen Republicans, many of whom said they were reluctant to support any immigration overhaul that did not secure the southern border and guard against a future wave of illegal immigrants. Their amendment also will require a $3.2 billion high-tech border surveillance plan -- including drone aircraft and long-range thermal imaging cameras -- as well as an electronic employment verification system and a visa entry/exit system at all air and sea ports.
All those security measures must be in place before any immigrant can become a legal permanent resident and receive a green card.
Despite the strong bipartisan support for the amendment, any final bill passed by the Senate will head to the Republican-controlled House, where it already faces vocal opposition.
Despite a clamoring for stronger border security from many Republicans in the Senate and the House, some leading Republicans dug in against the Corker-Hoeven plan, and a majority of Senate Republicans did not vote to take up the measure.
On Monday, 14 Republican senators sent a letter to Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, calling for a "serious, extensive amendment process."
"This is deeply, deeply disturbing," read the letter, referring to the fact that only a fraction of the amendments filed to the bill had been voted on. "It is effectively shutting down the American people's ability to be heard on this issue through their elected representatives."
Advocates also worried that in an effort to garner bipartisan support for the bill, Democratic senators were making too many concessions without getting anything in return. The border plan, for instance, also includes a provision by Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, that would prevent undocumented immigrants from qualifying for Social Security benefits, as well as from receiving federal welfare funds.
"It is a tough pill to swallow, and there is no guarantee it will not get worse later in the process," said Kevin Appleby, the director of migration policy at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, referring to the amendment. "If the path to citizenship is further weakened, there could come a tipping point where the bill becomes unsupportable."