WASHINGTON -- With a solemnity reserved for momentous occasions, the Senate passed historic legislation Thursday offering the priceless hope of citizenship to millions of immigrants living illegally in America's shadows. The bill also promises a military-style effort to secure the long-porous border with Mexico.
The bipartisan vote was 68-32 on a measure that sits atop President Barack Obama's second-term domestic agenda. But the bill's prospects are highly uncertain in the Republican-controlled House, where party leaders are jockeying for position in advance of expected action next month.
Both of West Virginia's senators voted in support of the sweeping reform measure.
After successfully pushing for an amendment to strengthen border security, U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va, said the bill is a step forward for immigration reform.
"It is encouraging, and truly, a breath of fresh air that Congress approached immigration reform in a bipartisan manner led by Senators from border states that deal with this issue every day," Manchin said in a news release announcing his support.
It was unclear heading into today's vote if U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., would approve of the measure. In casting his vote, Rockefeller said he's confident in the approach the bill takes in addressing changes to the immigration system."This legislation is by no means perfect, but it goes a long way toward modernizing our broken immigration system and strikes a balance between tough but fair reforms," Rockefeller said in a news release.
Spectators in galleries that overlook the Senate floor watched expectantly as senators voted one by one from their desks. Some onlookers erupted in chants of "Yes, we can" after Vice President Joe Biden announced the vote result.
After three weeks of debate, there was no doubt about the outcome. Fourteen Republicans joined all 52 Democrats and two independents to support the bill.
In the final hours of debate, members of the so-called Gang of 8, the group that drafted the measure, frequently spoke in personal terms while extolling the bill's virtues, rebutting its critics -- and appealing to the House members whose turn comes next.
"Do the right thing for America and for your party," said Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., who said his mother emigrated to the United States from Cuba. "Find common ground. Lean away from the extremes. Opt for reason and govern with us."
Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake said those seeking legal status after living in the United States illegally must "pass a background check, make good on any tax liability and pay a fee and a fine." There are other requirements before citizenship can be obtained, he noted.
He, too, spoke from personal experience, recalling time he spent as a youth working alongside family members and "undocumented migrant labor, largely from Mexico, who worked harder than we did under conditions much more difficult than we endured."
Since then, he said, "I have harbored a feeling of admiration and respect for those who have come to risk life and limb and sacrifice so much to provide a better life for themselves and their families."