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Senate Republicans help immigration bill advance, but will they vote for it?

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

Senate Republicans have dodged being easily tarred for blocking immigration reform, as more than half their caucus helped Democrats Tuesday overcome a pair of procedural hurdles to amending and debating the comprehensive immigration bill.

Yet whether the GOP decides the bipartisan Senate immigration fix is ultimately better than the current broken system remains an open question.

Many Republicans who voted in the affirmative Tuesday also said the bill needed significant changes to gain their final approval. Several cited an amendment from Sen. John Cornyn (R) of Texas that aims to amp up border security as a key requirement.

“I think the status quo is completely unacceptable,” Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky told reporters after voting for the measure. “The legal immigration improvements in the bill are really quite good things that we should have done years ago. The contentious parts of it obviously are in the categories of benefits [for those in the country illegally] and border [security].”

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The Senate moved ahead on the immigration reform bill Tuesday with two heavily bipartisan votes. The second, which passed on an 84-15 vote, saw 30 Republicans join all 54 Democrats in support. (Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, one of the bill’s sponsors, is a surefire “yes,” but missed both votes.)

The broad GOP support was a strongly positive sign for conservative immigration reformers.

“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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Given the twin pressures, the question on the minds of Democrats and immigration advocates is whether Republicans are acting in good faith – or just acting.

Nowhere is this debate about Republican intentions more clear than on the issue of border security, the area that Republicans, including Gang of 8 member Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, have targeted for hardening on the Senate floor.

Cornyn’s RESULTS Act, which he is currently drafting, would address a key GOP concern that the underlying bill lacks border security requirements that are both stiff and specific.

But Senator Reid called that amendment a “poison pill” aimed at short-circuiting the ability of the nation’s more than 10 million undocumented immigrants to become citizens.

Cornyn told reporters outside the Senate chamber that he’s willing to work with Democrats to try to figure out stronger border security measures.

“I think that’s what the next three weeks are for,” he said. “It’s important to not only get this out of the Senate in a stronger state but also to prepare it for a conference committee with the House if we’re going to get anything important done.”

That sounds like the congressional equivalent of a Trojan horse to some liberals. Skeptics of the GOP see a maneuver aimed at making the bill repellant to liberals who believe that raising border security requirements to near-absolute levels will, given the bill’s linkage between border security and a path to citizenship, mean those here illegally may never be allowed to become permanent residents or citizens.

“Those who hold out the Cornyn amendment as a condition for support are not looking to get to yes,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of immigration reform advocates America’s Voice, in a statement after the vote, “but they are looking for an excuse to get to no.”