WASHINGTON (AP) - Historic immigration legislation cleared a key Senate hurdle with votes to spare on Monday, pointing the way to near-certain passage within days for $38 billion worth of new security measures along the border with Mexico and an unprecedented chance at citizenship for millions living in the country illegally.
The vote was 67-27, seven more than the 60 needed, with 15 Republicans agreeing to advance legislation at the top of President Barack Obama's second-term domestic agenda.
The vote came as Obama campaigned from the White House for the bill, saying, "now is the time" to overhaul an immigration system that even critics of the legislation agree needs reform.
Last-minute frustration was evident among opponents. In an unusual slap at members of his own party as well as Democrats, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas said it appeared that lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle "very much want a fig leaf" on border security to justify a vote for immigration.
Senate passage on Thursday or Friday would send the issue to the House, where conservative Republicans in the majority oppose citizenship for anyone living in the country illegally.
Some GOP lawmakers have appealed to Speaker John Boehner not to permit any immigration legislation to come to a vote for fear that whatever its contents, it would open the door to an unpalatable compromise with the Senate. At the same time, the House Judiciary Committee is in the midst of approving a handful of measures related to immigration, action that ordinarily is a prelude to votes in the full House.
"Now is the time to do it," Obama said at the White House before meeting with nine business executives who support a change in immigration laws. He added, "I hope that we can get the strongest possible vote out of the Senate so that we can then move to the House and get this done before the summer break" beginning in early August.
He said the measure would be good for the economy, for business and for workers who are "oftentimes exploited at low wages."
As for the overall economy, he said, "I think every business leader here feels confident that they'll be in a stronger position to continue to innovate, to continue to invest, to continue to create jobs and ensure that this continues to be the land of opportunity for generations to come."
Opponents saw it otherwise. "It will encourage more illegal immigration and must be stopped," Cruz exhorted supporters via email, urging them to contact their own senators with a plea to defeat the measure.
Leaving little to chance, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce announced it was launching a new seven-figure ad buy Monday in support of the bill. "Call Congress. End de facto amnesty. Create jobs and economic growth by supporting conservative immigration reforms," the ad said.