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After first bipartisan vote, tensions begin to flare on immigration reform

The day after an overwhelming bipartisan vote to begin work on a comprehensive immigration reform bill, that debate got a little less, um, Kumbaya.

A procedural squabble erupted on the third day of formal discussion on the bill as both sides wrangled over how to begin the process of amending the legislation, and senators argued heatedly over a proposed amendment by Texas Sen. John Cornyn that would broaden the requirements for border security -- and, some say, could jeopardize the timeline for a path to citizenship. 

“We cannot accept his amendment, plain and simple,” Sen. Chuck Schumer, a key bill drafter, said of Cornyn’s measure on the Senate floor.

The Cornyn amendment has emerged as a major flashpoint, with some Republicans saying their support of the final bill will be contingent upon its inclusion. But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has labeled the proposal a “poison pill” designed to throw up roadblocks for undocumented immigrants hoping to work their way toward legal permanent residency and eventual citizenship.

Sen. John McCain makes a pointed statement Wednesday on the Senate floor while speaking about immigration reform legislation.

The amendment, unveiled in full today, would create stricter “triggers” that would prevent previously undocumented immigrants from being eligible for green cards until the nation’s entire southern border is under surveillance and 90 percent of illegal border crossers are being apprehended.

Schumer argues that the amendment’s triggers are unreasonable and could be used to delay or even eliminate the proposed path to citizenship.

“It doesn’t create a path to citizenship in any way,” Schumer said. “It doesn’t allow one. And – finally – its cost is through the roof!”

Other Republicans who support the reform bill – including Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham – have voiced concern about the Cornyn measure’s cost as well, saying that its increase of border patrol agents and implementation of biometric systems are particularly expensive.

Cornyn says his amendment appropriates the same amount for border security --  $6.5 billion -- as the Gang of Eight bill.

But earlier Wednesday, another GOP member of the Gang of Eight disputed the idea that Cornyn’s amendment is designed to bring down the legislation. “I don’t think it’s a poison pill,” Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake said at a breakfast with reporters. “He has said publicly, he said again in our lunch meeting yesterday, `If my amendment is adopted I will vote for the bill.’ He has said that on a number of occasions and I believe him.”

But Flake also said he believes Cornyn's amendment won't be adopted as written and that bill supporters are working to find areas of agreement.

Top senators also quibbled Wednesday about the procedure for voting on amendments.

Reid proposed a vote on a first raft of amendments – two from Democrats and three from Republicans – with each requiring 60 votes for passage.

Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa objected, saying a simple majority should suffice.

“Right out of the box, right now, just on the third day, they want to subject our amendments to a filibuster, like a 60-vote threshold,” he said. “So I have to ask: Who’s obstructing now?”

The delay in beginning amendment votes comes after Reid has repeatedly said he hopes for a final vote on the legislation by July 4.

With every hour of disagreement, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont commented dryly, that congressional vacation is pushed closer to jeopardy.

“I’d like to just have voting on something  so we can finish this,” Leahy said. “Frankly, given my choice to spend Fourth of July week in Washington, as salubrious as the weather is, or in Vermont for the Fourth of July, I’d much rather be in Vermont.”

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