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Is There a Last Gasp for Immigration Reform?

CBS
CBS

Updated 5:47 p.m. Eastern Time

Among the many initiatives Democrats are trying to get passed in the lame-duck session is an immigration bill known as the DREAM Act that would allow certain young undocumented immigrants to apply for citizenship.

The DREAM Act is a major priority of Hispanic groups, who represent a growing and crucial voting bloc. Without them Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, among other western Democrats, would now be preparing for retirement.

What these groups want is comprehensive immigration reform, something Reid promised to get done this year back in April, vowing "no excuses" for failure. They aren't getting it, but they view the DREAM Act as a start: The bill would allow illegal immigrants who entered the United States as children (before age 16), have lived in America for five consecutive years, have no serious criminal record and who have a high-school degree or GED certificate to apply for citizenship on the condition that they attend college or serve in the military for two or more years.

Republicans have hammered the DREAM Act as amounting to "amnesty" for illegal immigrants.

"The American people did not vote for amnesty in this past election," Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) said Wednesday. "I think it's clear, as Senator McCain said, the national consensus is and he's accepted this, that we have to have lawfulness in the immigration system before we start giving millions amnesty--as this bill will do."

Reid has vowed to bring the DREAM Act up for a vote in the lame duck session of the Senate. But it's a heavy lift. For starters, Republicans say they will block any and all other legislation until the Bush tax cuts have been extended and the government, which runs out of money on Friday, has been funded. (The House on Wednesday afternoon passed a bill to fund the government through December 18th, and the Senate is expected to follow suit, but that's not a permanent solution.)

In addition, the DREAM Act is just one of the issues Democrats are trying to deal with before the new, more Republican Congress takes over next year. President Obama is pushing hard for the Senate to ratify the new START arms treaty with Russia before the new year for fear that it will otherwise fall apart; Democrats are also vowing to pass repeal of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, something that could take two weeks of Senate time if (as Republicans insist) it goes through a full amendment process.

Also to be dealt with is an extension of unemployment benefits, which expired Tuesday, putting two million people in jeopardy of not seeing checks this holiday season. Keep in mind all this has to happen before senators go home for the year, something that will happen at the very latest on December 24th.

And then there's the fact that Reid may not have the 60 votes he needs to pass the bill. There are at least two Democrats (Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Mark Pryor of Arkansas) who have signaled they would vote against it, and even if the Democratic caucus holds together, Reid would still have to peel off two Republicans to overcome a filibuster - no easy task. (It looks Republican Sens. Dick Lugar of Indiana and Bob Bennett of Utah would back the bill, but Nelson and Pryor offset them.)

Moderate senators like Scott Brown of Massachusetts do not look eager to embrace the bill; his spokesman referred to it as "backdoor amnesty," according to Politico. The DREAM Act also isn't a sure thing in the House: Democrat Steny Hoyer said today that he has not yet determined whether or not it will come to the floor, and even if it does, expect a number of Democrats to vote against it.

Behind closed doors, some Democratic senators are pushing hard for a DREAM Act vote - but Senate sources tell CBS News that they simply don't believe there is time to get the bill passed. And the prospects for passage of anything with a whiff of "amnesty" in the new Congress - when Republicans will hold the House and Democrats will need seven GOP votes to overcome a GOP filibuster in the Senate - are exceedingly slim.

If the DREAM Act doesn't get passed, expect to hear outrage from Hispanic groups, who will start to publicly wonder why they are standing with a Democratic Party that has failed to enact even their scaled-down demands. Of course, Republicans have not exactly opened their arms to Hispanic groups - see the Arizona immigration law and the fiery rhetoric of politicians like Tom Tancredo. It's hard to imagine much Hispanic anger toward Democrats materializing as support for Republicans.

There's a larger issue here too, and that's what the struggle to pass the DREAM Act says about the prospects for comprehensive immigration reform. The DREAM Act reflects effort to provide a path to citizenship for what might be considered model illegal immigrants (a concept some, of course, might object to): Those who came to America as children, who have not committed serious crimes, who have gone to school and who plan to go to college or serve in the military.

"The prospect for comprehensive immigration reform are pretty low, and the DREAM Act gives an example of that," Bryan Griffith of the Center for Immigration Studies told Hotsheet. 

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UPDATE: Stephen Miller, Republican Press Secretary to the Senate Judiciary Committee, responds to this story: "If passed, the DREAM Act would be one of the most significant changes to our immigration laws in years. It would grant amnesty to millions of illegal aliens and seriously compromise efforts to secure the border...[the bill provides] amnesty and safe harbor for a number of criminal aliens, such as those who have been convicted of DUI's; authorizing millions of new workers in the midst of a severe recession; and putting those here illegally ahead of those playing by the rules and waiting patiently in line."


Brian Montopoli is senior political reporter for CBSNews.com. You can read more of his posts here. Follow Hotsheet on Facebook and Twitter.