Senate Postpones DREAM Vote: House Passes Bill 216-198

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The DREAM Act, which passed the House last night but faced sure defeat in the Senate if brought to a vote before budget and tax matters are resolved, was tabled today until an unspecified date next week.

The act, which would provide a path to citizenship for certain immigrant college students and military officers, is now the closest to passage it has been in its decade-long history before congressional committees.

Following House passage by a 216-198 vote, the Senate scheduled a vote for this morning, but with the 42 Republican Senators all united in a pledge to filibuster the bill, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) proposed to table DREAM and received 59 yeas to 40 nays just before noon.

The move gives life to the act for at least a few more days and provides the possibility of a vote on the bill that will not be determined solely by the Republican senators' budget-and-tax-only agenda.

In a floor speech before the House vote, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said of the Dream Act, “It's about equality; it's about opportunity; it's about the future." She also pointed out that the legislation would not cost anything and would bring in as much as $2.5 billion in taxes paid by the new citizens.

The act has received strong, multi-sectored support of late – from Senate and House Democratic leaders, President Barack Obama, military leaders, business executives, immigrant advocacy groups, education officials and students.

House Democrats packaged the bill as a down payment on more comprehensive immigration reform, fearing that with the majority change in the House the bill might not get serious consideration for several years. But House critics – including some who had backed the bill previously – lumped the bill with others they deemed not essential to current budget and tax deliberations and voted against it.

The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act would allow law-abiding immigrant youth who moved to the U.S. before age 16 and have lived here at least five years eventually to attain full citizenship after completing two years of college toward a degree or serving two years in the military. DREAM’s passing has been estimated to affect more than 700,000 immigrants now in the country.  

The bill had appeared close to passage in September when Reid attached DREAM as an amendment to the 2011 Defense Appropriations Bill along with the repeal of the military’s Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy towards gays. But that vote – 56-43 – ended up four votes short of sufficient to override a Republican filibuster.

In debate yesterday, a number of House Republicans voiced anger over the rushed nature of the vote; the act is one of a number of bills that came to the floor without committee markups or votes. Philosophically, some lined up to oppose the act, calling the bill nothing short of amnesty.

“Amnesty is not fairness, it is a direct assault on rule of law,” said Rep. Virginia Foxx (N.C.).

Republican Reps. Lamar Smith (Texas), Phil Gingrey (Ga.), Dana Rohrbacher (Calif.) and Steve King (Iowa) all referred to the bill as the “Nightmare Act.”

“This is nothing more than mass amnesty that will undoubtedly encourage millions more to come in illegally,” said Rohrbacher.

Three Florida Republicans – Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Mario Diaz-Balart, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen – spoke in favor of the act on the floor.

On debate last night on the Senate floor, Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (RKy.) characterized DREAM as one part of a “liberal grab bag” of laws that Senate Democrats were putting to a vote “just to show they care” enough to bring them up.

The bill’s original author, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), making a final plea on behalf of DREAM, focused on the fact that the bill would help children who had no control over their illegal arrival in the country.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said he disagreed that the youths affected by the DREAM Act were unjustly treated. They entered the country illegally, he said, and should be dealt with accordingly.

“It is not an injustice to enforce the law,” Sessions said.

He also questioned the bill’s inclusion of youths with misdemeanor convictions, said the Congressional Budget Office has underestimated the cost of the DREAM Act, and called the act’s provisions on military enlisters unnecessary.

“The military already allows people who are not citizens to join,” McConnell said. “This bill is not necessary to do that.”

In the weeks leading up to this vote, House Democrats removed a provision of the bill that would have repealed a federal law penalizing states that provide higher education benefits, including in-state tuition benefits, to undocumented students. The bill was also modified to lower the maximum eligible age from 35 down to 30.

Previous coverage: "Will it Ever Be More Than a DREAM?"