Republican Filibuster Stalls DREAM Act in Senate

Key Republicans have said they won't vote for cloture. Here's what happens next.

By Julianne Hing Sep 21, 2010

UPDATE @ 3:45p ET: The Republican filibuster of the defense authorization bill succeeded this afternoon, blocking action on both the DREAM Act and repeal of "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell." The Senate voted 56 to 43 to keep debate on the bill open. Majority Leader Harry Reid was seeking cloture, which would have closed the bill and moved it to the floor for a vote. We’ll have a full update on the action, with reactions and the road forward for the DREAM Act later in the afternoon.

UPDATE 12:30pm ET: Maine Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, moderate Republicans who DREAM Act backers were trying to sway, have indicated that they will oppose cloture on the defense authorization bill when it comes up for a vote today. The most recent reports suggest that with both Snowe and Collins out of the picture, the motion for cloture on the defense authorization bill will not pass today.

Snowe said she takes issue with Majority Leader Harry Reid’s procedural tactics, namely Reid’s decision to raise "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" before a survey from military service members on the issue is scheduled for the end of the year. On the Senate floor this morning Republicans have hidden behind these sorts of objections to defend their decision to block cloture. "This is not the process that the Senate is used to following," said Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss, echoing a morning’s worth of similar complaints from other Republicans. "I intend to vote against the motion to proceed." Arizona Sen. John McCain criticized the "political maneurvering" of Reid ahead of the November elections. McCain said that to raise the DREAM Act and DADT in the defense authorization bill would harm the morale of troops abroad.

ColorLines spoke with a congressional insider today who laid out four potential scenarios when the cloture motion comes up for a vote this afternoon.

1) Cloture will lose by a large margin that belies the DREAM Act’s actual support. Some conservative Democrats may have promised their support to Reid if they are the deciding votes. But because it does not appear that a single Republican will vote for cloture today, it doesn’t matter what conservative Democrats do, and so three or four Democrats may fall away. Senators like Jim Webb and Ben Nelson might vote against.

2) Reid may move to reconsider the vote. If it appears cloture will not pass today, Reid may vote against his own motion today. The winning side of a vote has the privilege of moving to reconsider it. If cloture fails today, Reid could move to have the vote brought up again.

3) Reid could file for cloture again. Reid may vote for cloture today, but file a petition that would expire in two days, precious time he would likely use to negotiate a deal with moderate Republicans who want the ability to add their own amendments to the defense authorization bill. In all of these scenarios Reid would be able to either keep fighting or walk away from the issues and tell voters back in Nevada that he’s done all he could for the DREAM Act and DADT.

4) Cloture could pass. Moderate Republicans and conservative Democrats both could surprise everyone by voting on the motion to proceed.


The DREAM Act is poised to reach the Senate floor today in what is shaping up as a dramatic political standoff between Republicans and Democrats. After almost a decade of activism, the bill must now survive a motion for cloture on the defense authorization bill that is scheduled for 2:15 p.m. ET.

Last week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid sent a jolt through the immigration world when he announced he would be introducing the DREAM Act and a "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" repeal as amendments to the $725 billion defense authorization bill. Before those issues can be taken up as separate amendments, the Senate must agree to close debate on the larger defense bill. 

Republicans like Sens. John McCain, Orrin Hatch, and Mitch McConnell have promised to block that procedural step and thereby launch a filibuster the defense bill today. Last week, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican who for decades carved out a professional reputation as a moderate, tag-teamed outrage with McCain on the Senate floor. They charge that Reid proposed the two bills in what everyone acknowledges is a political move to shore up Democrats’ support back in Nevada, where Reid faces a tough reelection campaign.

"[I]t makes no sense to me, Sen. McCain, for us to bring the defense authorization bill to the floor of the Senate at any time where you and I cannot offer an amendment about how you try a terrorist," the Huffington Post reports Graham said last week. "I can’t offer those amendments. We’re going to be offering on the DREAM Act. The DREAM Act is a hot topic in the immigration world but not hot among our troops. I’ve been to Afghanistan and Iraq numerous times and I haven’t had one soldier ask me about the DREAM Act. Are they going to get paid more? Do they have the tools to win the war? I think this is politics at its worst. I stand here saying our party has probably abused rules in the past but not like this."

The DREAM Act would provide hundreds of thousands of undocumented young people who’ve been raised in this country the opportunity to gain citizenship if they have a high school diploma and make a two-year commitment to the military or college. In order to qualify, a young person must have immigrated before the age of 16, have lived in the country for at least five years and have a clean criminal record.

After a week of round the clock activism, DREAM Act watchers still are not certain if the defense bill has 60 votes to pass cloture today; they are banking on at least 55 votes, but many are still up in the air. Yesterday, the Hill reported that five Democrats who have previously opposed the DREAM Act had yet to make up their mind on which way they’ll vote today.

Should DREAM Act activists prevail today on the cloture vote, another vote on the DREAM Act itself could happen as early as Wednesday or Thursday. Even in the best of circumstances, the DREAM Act likely would not be taken up again in earnest until after the November elections. Reid has said he plans to finish it during a lame duck session then, before this current Congress’ term is up in January.

For the DREAM Act, it’s an historic day full of much promise and anticipation. And yet, DREAM Act activists have been here before. Most recently, the bill was eight votes short of cloture in 2007, when Democrats helped kill it.