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They're off! Immigration debate begins on Senate floor

Aaaand they’re off. 

Senators began a preliminary discussion of a comprehensive immigration bill Friday, kicking off what will be a weeks-long tussle over the first sweeping attempt to overhaul the nation’s immigration system since 2007. 

NBC's Mark Murray and Domenico Montanaro preview next week's political news including a potential 2016 showdown in Chicago, and the immigration vote in the Senate set for next Tuesday.

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid repeated Friday morning that he wants a final vote on the legislation before the Senate recesses for the July 4 holiday. 

“It is gratifying to see the momentum behind this package of commonsense reforms, which will make our country safer and help 11 million undocumented immigrants get right with the law,” Reid said of the bill, which was written by a bipartisan group of eight senators and passed out of the Judiciary Committee by a 13-5 vote last month. 

Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, who is leading opposition to the Gang of Eight bill, argued on the Senate floor that the law would provide “amnesty” to reward law breakers, exacerbate joblessness  and prompt more waves of illegal immigration. 

“The legislation that’s been offered by the Gang of Eight says they’ve fixed it, don’t worry! We’ve taken care of all that is needed!” Sessions said during more than two hours of argument against the bill on the Senate floor Friday morning. “Well, it won’t do that. That’s the problem. It will definitely give amnesty today.”

Sessions was joined by Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, who was initially involved in negotiations to help draft the bill but has become one of its vocal opponents.

“This is not the bill to fix our immigration system,” Lee said. ‘I want to pass immigration reform, I want to debate immigration reform and that is exactly why we should not proceed to the Gang of Eight bill.”   

“We’re being presented with a choice between the Gang of Eight bill or nothing,”  he added. “Common sense, recent history and the ongoing legislative process of the House of Representatives confirm that that is a false choice.”

An initial vote Tuesday afternoon -- to officially proceed to debate on the bill --  will offer a preliminary measure of the most rigid opposition to the bill. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he will not try to block the legislation from coming to the floor.

Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy, who shepherded the legislation through the Senate Judiciary Committee, admonished the “small minority” who oppose formally beginning debate on the bill.

“This is not a time to have a tiny handful stop a debate,” he said.

Next week, lawmakers are expected to begin the process of offering changes to the legislation, with Republicans planning to zero in on attempts to stiffen border security and enforcement.  

Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida -- a key drafter of the legislation who says he’s trying to woo more conservatives to support the bill --  has said that the it cannot pass without “a serious and real border security measure.”  

He’s pledged to work with other lawmakers to introduce changes that would make the bill more palatable to conservatives -- especially in the Republican-controlled House -- but Democratic backers will fight proposals that could delay the implementation of the bill’s centerpiece “path to citizenship.”

Rubio’s office has also been supportive of an effort by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, that would put in place more stringent security  “triggers” that must be met before undocumented immigrants with provisional legal status can apply for green cards. Senate Democrats say that’s a non-starter. 

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