Can the Dream Act pass the Senate in the lame duck session?

Jonathan Strong Jonathan Strong, 27, is a reporter for the Daily Caller covering Congress. Previously, he was a reporter for Inside EPA where he wrote about environmental regulation in great detail, and before that a staffer for Rep. Dan Lungren (R-CA). Strong graduated from Wheaton College (IL) with a degree in political science in 2006. He is a huge fan of and season ticket holder to the Washington Capitals hockey team. Strong and his wife reside in Arlington.
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Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is vowing to bring the immigration-related “DREAM Act” to the Senate floor and some Senate Republicans are sounding the alarm bells, highlighting that it would offer amnesty to an estimated 2.1 million illegal aliens.

The legislation would offer a “path to citizenship” for illegal aliens if they came to America before they were 16 years old, have a G.E.D. or high school diploma, were admitted into a college, and are 35 years old or younger at the date of enactment.

Republicans are ramping up their opposition to the legislation, noting that simply by applying for the DREAM Act’s program, illegal aliens could be given a hiatus from the law for as long as six years. They also note the bill will grant illegal aliens eligibility for in-state tuition and the right to sponsor their parents and extended family for legalization.

But does the legislation have a shot? Could several outgoing Republicans like Utah Sen. Bob Bennett team up with Democrats to squeak by a major immigration bill weeks after voters gave Democrats a shellacking?

Like so many issues, the key battle is the vote for cloture in the Senate, which would override a Republican filibuster.

Illinois Senator-elect Mark Kirk will be sworn in on Nov. 29, after which Republicans will have 42 votes in the Senate, Democrats 58.

A spokesman for Republican Sen. Dick Lugar of Indiana told The Daily Caller he will vote for cloture.

Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska has said he won’t vote for cloture. A spokesman for Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a likely target for advocates of the bill, told The Daily Caller he is a “no” on cloture.

In 2007, GOP Sens. Bennett of Utah, Sam Brownback of Kansas, Susan Collins of Maine, Orrin Hatch of Utah, Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, Lugar of Indiana, and Olympia Snowe of Maine all voted “yes” on cloture for the Dream Act.

Then, Democratic Sens. Max Baucus of Montana, Kent Conrad of North Dakota, Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, and Jon Tester of Montana all voted no.

The vote failed 52-44. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, once a top Republican proponent of immigration reform, did not vote.

Advocates are also eying Republican lame duck Sens. George LeMieux of Florida, Charlie Crist’s former chief of staff, and Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, though Gregg voted no on cloture in 2007.

Snowe, Hutchison and Hatch all face a reelection contest in 2012 and therefore potential primary challenges. They’ll “likely be on their best behavior this time around,” said a former GOP senate aide.

On the Democratic side, Tester, newly elected West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin and Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia all face potentially difficult reelection bids in conservative states where immigration is a hot button issue.

All this adds up to a pretty daunting challenge for advocates of the bill. Supposing they can pick up several Republican votes, there are nine Democratic senators with ample cause to bolt.

Using an algorithm that takes into account past votes, public statements, looming reelection bids and human intelligence, the WhipCast by the Davis Intelligence Group found a 33% chance that cloture would pass.

“Our proprietary vote simulation and prediction engine suggests that Sen. Reid has a tough hill to climb in his battle to overcome a filibuster to the DREAM Act,” said Sean Davis, managing partner of the company, a political research firm for investment professionals. Davis noted that Democrats would “likely be hesitant to vote for anything that resembles amnesty for illegal immigrants.”

A spokesman for Reid, pressed for a reason to believe the bill has a shot, said only that “we are hopeful that we can get 60 votes.”

An aide to a moderate GOP senator said Democrats haven’t made any serious attempts to discuss the bill with the other side of the aisle. There is “no real organized effort that I am aware of,” the source said, “generally this is seen for what it is — a political, not policy driven endeavor.”

The source is referring to the speculation that Democrats are hoping to appease Hispanics, a key constituency who saw the last two years pass without any significant effort at tackling immigration by Democrats who controlled all of Washington’s levers of power. A twist on the speculation is that Democrats would see the Dream Act as their last chance to add 2.1 million Democratic-leaning Hispanic voters to the mix before Republicans take control of the House and the window closes.

Meanwhile, a source at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the largest and most important business group in Washington that has backed immigration reform efforts in the past, said late last week the organization is not engaged. “We haven’t seen the bill,” the source said.

(Sen. Dick Durbin, who is leading the push for the bill for Democrats, has introduced several similar “Dream Act” bills over the years, including S. 3827, the bill Reid put on the legislative calendar. However, insiders also say he’s discussing changes to the bill to make it more amenable to centrists.)

One lobbyist working to pass the bill said the technology is sector is pushing it. “There are a number of groups very active behind the scenes,” the source said, citing Microsoft and CompeteAmerica, a coalition of mostly tech-related companies and trade associations.

Clarissa Martinez of the National Council of La Raza, which is vigorously backing the bill, said her group is counting on Durbin’s “hard work” and that the bill will now be considered on the Senate floor by itself, rather than part of a larger legislative package.

In September, Democrats tried to pair the Dream Act with a defense reauthorization bill. “This is an all-time low for me being in the Senate and that’s saying something,” blasted Graham, arguing “the defense of our nation” should be “kept off limits from partisan politics.”

“Now that one of the excuses has been removed,” said Martinez, referring to the procedural issue of the bill’s attachment to the defense reauthorization bill, centrist senators like Graham will no longer be able to hide behind that “excuse.”

Unfortunately for Martinez and other advocates, Graham is still a no, excuse or not.

Potentially offering hope to the legislation’s advocates, Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, said Republicans aren’t making it their top priority to kill the bill.

“I don’t have a whip count on it…Our priority is making sure no one gets a tax hike and funding the government while reducing spending,” Stewart said.

A man who knows more than almost anyone about politics, the director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, Larry Sabato, said passage was unlikely in the lame duck.

“Election predictions are easy compared to projecting congressional actions. But if I had to guess whether the Dream Act would pass, I would say no. The history of lame duck sessions is that it is relatively easy for an insurgent party to stop any attempt by an outgoing majority to railroad a bill through. That is the situation we have here. Why wouldn’t Republicans in both houses do everything possible to stop the Dream Act? And endangered Democrats, thinking about 2012 already, may be inclined to help,” Sabato said.