S. 744 Immigration

On Thursday, the Senate passed a historic bill to reform comprehensively the country’s immigration system.  Senator Bennet was one of the bipartisan Gang of 8 (or Group of 8; Senator McCain felt that as a gang, they were rather pathetic) who spent about five months hashing out a compromise that wasn’t perfect, but that both parties could support.  It seemed like our immigration LA didn’t sleep for those five months, and the immigration Fellow and the immigration legislative aide didn’t do all that much better.  Thus it was with great anticipation that we greeted the vote on final passage on Thursday afternoon.

Because this is probably the one chance in our generation to try to reform immigration, Majority Leader Reid set up the vote to respect its historic significance; the senators were asked to vote from their desks.  Compared with the usual chaos of roll call votes with senators wandering in and out over the course of fifteen minutes and having numerous conversations in the chamber, you may appreciate the contrast of this formal procedure.

Throughout the afternoon leading up to the vote, the various members of the Group of 8, as well as others who had worked hard on the legislation, gave speeches on the floor to discuss the bill, the hard work that went into creating it, and the relationships that have been forged as a result.  Many of the senators also spoke of their personal histories with immigration, whether they were removed by one generation or by many from those who came from other countries to find homes in America.

I was part of the Bennet staff group who went over to be present the vote.  The galleries were completely full; in the public galleries two separate immigration groups were identifiable by their blue T-shirts in one section and their orange T-shirts in another.  In the staff and guest galleries, guests were dressed up in their best clothes to honor the occasion.  I understand that Senator Bennet’s mother had come to support him, and I thought, “If I passed a bill of this magnitude, I know *my* mother would absolutely come!”

 

Sitting in the staff gallery with its view of the Democratic side of the chamber, I looked out over all the senators in the chamber and how familiar they had become in the past ten months.  I have no idea if the women had coordinated their outfits or not, but the lilac, peach, and pink blazers scattered throughout the darker suits of the men all harmonized pleasantly.  It was particularly special to see Mo Cowan, the man who was appointed to John Kerry’s seat from Massachusetts, sporting a particularly dapper red bow tie and pocket square.  With the election of Senator Markey last week, this was Senator Cowan’s last appearance and last vote in the Senate.  I know that the folks in Massachusetts haven’t heard that much about him, but among the staff and senators, he has been uniformly respected and admired for embracing his role in his short time here.  Friends in Massachusetts, he has been far more than a placeholder.  He has done you proud, and I was thrilled that he was present and part of this historic occasion.  I was also amused to watch him laughing with Senator Warren, who sits next to him.  They were apparently comparing the records of who had sat at their desks, which can be discovered by opening the drawers and looking at the names carved in the wood.

The finite number of floor passes for staff had been snapped up early in the day, but our own immigration team had snagged temporary passes and camped out for several hours prior to the vote.  When the staff seats were filled, extra staff and a few House members lined the back walls of the chamber while the full complement of pages was arrayed across the front side walls.  I appreciated the full weight of the ceremony when I looked over to see that Vice President Biden himself was presiding over the session.

Senator Leahy, Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which handled the bill, gave a short speech, and then Majority Leader Reid gave the last remarks before the vote as the senators drifted in to take their seats at their desks.  He spoke of the people who had worked on the bill and of the courage needed to meet in the middle.  He spoke of people who were divided by party but united by love of country.

Senator Reid invoked the spirit of Ted Kennedy, who was a longtime advocate of immigration reform.  He said, “So today is the day. While I am sad Senator Kennedy isn’t here to see history made, I know he is looking at us proudly and loudly. Remember that voice? (There was a chuckle from some of the Senators at that point) But Ted Kennedy urged those of us who believed deeply in its cause to keep the faith. Here is what he said.

‘We will be back and we will prevail. . . . America always finds a way to solve its problems, expand its frontiers, and move closer to its ideals. It is not always easy, but it is the American way.’

That is what Ted Kennedy said.”

After Senator Reid’s remarks, Vice President Biden, a former longstanding member of the Senate himself, asked for the reading of S. 744 for a third time.  The Clerk read the title, and Majority Whip Senator Durbin asked for the Yays and Nays.

With that, the Clerk called the roll one by one, and the Senators voted from their desks.  After each name was called, the senator would rise and speak his or her vote, with either “Aye” or “Nay.”  Obviously some senators have been alphabetical for many years.  Senator Carper was already getting up as Senator Cardin was sitting down.  Likewise Mark Udall of Colorado was immediately followed by his cousin, Tom Udall of New Mexico.

There was great amusement when one of the Republican senators got swept up in the moment and voted, “Aye,” sat down, and then stood up and said, “Sorry, I meant Nay.”  Senator Schumer, who sat across the aisle from the senator made a beckoning motion of, “that’s OK, come over here.  Come along with us.”  The chuckles rose up but were as swiftly muted in respect for the formality of the occasion.

Looking over at the full press gallery, I realized that each person there was tracking the votes on an official vote-counting sheet.  Those pages are easily identifiable because they are about six inches wide and over two feet long.  Also, the names of the Democratic senators are printed in blue ink and the names of the Republicans are printed in red; the colors are apparent even from a distance.  When the vote was complete, the Clerk read the list of senators voting in the affirmative and voting in the negative, and I watched the press representatives double checking their notes.

Before Vice President Biden read the final tally, he cautioned that expressions of approval or disapproval in response to the result were not appropriate.  I was a little sad that some folks in the gallery either did not understand or did not choose to respect the traditions and dignity of the Senate, so when they started chanting, “Yes we can!” the Vice President was obliged to direct the Sergeant at Arms to restore order in the galleries.

The bill passed with a vote of 68-32, which included fourteen Republicans joining the entire group of Democrats in voting in favor of the bill.  No one got everything that they wanted, but I’ve learned that is the nature of legislation.  Being present for the vote and watching the full tradition of the Senate was one of the most powerful and inspiring experiences I have had this year.  I’m not sure I can do justice to the energy in the chamber that afternoon and how honored I was to be part of it.

Of course, our office was jubilant.  Most of us returned to our desks but continued to watch the floor in C-Span as a number of the members of the Group of 8 returned to the floor to acknowledge the staffers and other senators’ staff who had made the entire bill possible.  The office where the LA’s and the Fellows sit adjoins the Chief of Staff’s office through front and back doors, and his office additionally adjoins the Schedulers’ office.  Thus when a member of our staff was mentioned on the floor, there would be a cheer that went up from multiple rooms.  I was especially pleased when Senator Bennet acknowledged the schedulers of the eight senators on the Group of 8, because I can only imagine the challenge they had of finding time for three weekly meetings in the already overly packed schedules of the senators.

We ended the day with a champagne toast for all of the folks in our office.  It has been a great honor to be part of a group that has worked so hard on such a worthy cause.  I completely understand the national frustration with Congress, but at least on this day and on this project, people worked with great dedication and perseverance to find a middle path that might work for everyone.

At the end of his remarks just before the vote, Senator Reid read a poem that spoke to each one of us who was listening.

I can see a new day, a new day soon to be,

when the storm clouds are all past

and the sun shines on a world that is free.

I can see a new man, a new man standing tall,

with his head high and his heart proud

and afraid of nothing at all.

I can see a new day, a new day soon to be,

when the storm clouds are all past

and the sun shines on a world that is free.

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1 Comment

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One response to “S. 744 Immigration

  1. Heather Pence

    Nice poem. And nice quote from Ted Kennedy.

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