Undocumented students and supporters rally at the Roybal Learning Center in Los Angeles, Sept. 20, 2010, in favor of the DREAM Act (Development Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act), a piece of proposed federal legislation that would create a pathway to citizenship.
Nothing is moving in Washington until fights over tax cuts and unemployment insurance are settled. If those two get settled, one bill that could push its way to the front of the line is the Dream Act. The vote could come as early as tomorrow.
The Dream Act would give legal status to undocumented college students and members of the armed forces. Given the overwhelming Democratic majority in the House – a majority that disappears come January - odds are good for passage of the measure there.
The Senate is more problematic. Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein is a big supporter of the Dream Act. So is her Democratic colleague Barbara Boxer.
"This is a very important piece of legislation that is targeted at the best and the brightest young people who are here through no fault of their own because their parents brought them here," says Boxer.
Many Republicans, however, disagree. Speaking Monday on the Senate floor, Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama called the Dream Act “a reckless proposal for mass amnesty.”
Lynn Tramonte, deputy director of the immigration reform group America’s Voice, says, "other than Sen. Sessions, they’re not talking about the substance of the bill and saying that they disagree with the substance of the bill."
Tramonte says senators argue that now is "not the right time," or they want to make some changes to the bill.
"They’re making excuses," she says. Tramonte thinks there are the votes on the Senate side "if people vote their conscience and vote their heart."
Congressional scholar Thomas Mann from the Brookings Institution says he doesn't doubt that "there are at least a dozen Republican senators who believe it’s the right thing to do substantively."
He says the problem for Democrats is the math: everything in the Senate these days needs a super-majority — 60 votes — to pass. That includes the Dream Act.
"This, like everything else," he says, "is subject to a Republican filibuster and if it were a matter of simple majorities passing things — as is true in every other legislative body in the world — this would pass."
Mann says the GOP has turned strongly against any kind of comprehensive immigration reform. That means anything that could legalize the status of undocumented immigrants. Republicans bucking that trend invite political trouble.
"It means for any Republican senator thinking about it that there will almost certainly be a primary challenge," he says.
Mann says Democratic senators in more conservative states — Mark Pryor in Arkansas, Mary Landrieu in Louisiana, or Ben Nelson in Nebraska — also have reasons to think twice about supporting the Dream Act.
But Ira Mehlman with the Federation for American Immigration Reform says Democrats are being pressured to vote for the Dream Act by leadership, particularly from the Senate Majority Leader.
"Harry Reid made some promises in his re-election bid in Nevada and he’s trying to get — particularly the senators — help him pay off that political debt," he says.
Mehlman opposes the Dream Act. He says Congress should finish up important business, such as tax cuts, and go home.
"To take up to a couple of weeks debating an immig... amnesty bill that was never taken up in the previous 22 months of the 111th Congress was operating is something that is a distraction in the minds of most Americans from what a lame duck Congress ought to be focused on," he says.
Mehlman says the Democrats can't round up enough Republican votes in the Senate to pass the Dream Act. But he doesn’t like saying that out loud. He says he might jinx the outcome he wants.