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Senate Republicans help immigration bill advance, but will they vote for it? (+video)

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“You saw a majority of the caucus wanted to proceed to the bill – that doesn’t mean they’re going to vote for it, but it does mean they are in play,” says Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina, one of the bipartisan “Gang of 8” who authored the Senate bill. “And one or two people who voted against cloture may come into play later on if we can improve the bill.”

The 15 ‘no’ votes highlighted those Republicans, led by long-time critics like Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) of Alabama and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R) of Iowa, who are all but dead-set against the reform measure.

But despite a core of stalwart opponents, Republicans including Senators McConnell and Cornyn, the top two GOP Senate leaders, lent their assent to the bill, which majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada plans to see safely out of the chamber by month’s end. House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio recently said he expected the House to be ready to begin it’s own immigration debate in July.

The bill’s authors have long said they are attempting to get a vast bipartisan vote in the Senate, perhaps as high as 70 votes, in order to show momentum for the reform movement. Currently, five Republicans and all but a handful of the Senate’s 54 Democrats are committed to the bill.

The vote Tuesday was proof, according to supporters of immigration reform, that the majority of Republicans believe it would be politically toxic to be labeled obstructionists.

“From a Republican Party point of view, you don’t have to vote for a bad bill,” Senator Graham says. “But to have seemed to have not been willing to work on a solution on immigration, and be practical on the 11 million [undocumented immigrants], I think is a death blow to our party.”

But Tuesday’s vote, procedural though it was, was not without more immediate risk for Republican senators. Several groups that oppose increasing immigration, including Heritage Action, the political arm of the conservative Heritage Foundation, and NumbersUSA, said they would use the votes on their annual congressional scorecards. Such vote ratings can prove to be powerful signals for some of the GOP’s most conservative voters.

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