Heller says he will vote in favor of immigration bill in Senate

WASHINGTON — Removing any doubt, Sen. Dean Heller announced Wednesday he will vote for the comprehensive immigration bill headed to final Senate passage.

He had been leaning in favor of the bill, but the Nevada Republican said his vote was secured when the Senate in a 69-29 vote added a major amendment that promised to install $46 billion in beefed-up border security before moving 11 million undocumented residents onto a pathway to U.S. citizenship.

“The border security portion of this legislation has been addressed, and for that reason, I can support this bill,” Heller said in a Senate floor speech.

Now, Heller said, “we have a bill where the good far outweighs the bad.”

He previously had declared that to be his standard to judge the legislation.

Heller had been tilting toward changes in the immigration system since he was elected to a full six-year term in November in a state where Hispanics are growing in population and becoming more politically active.

The vote would complete the Nevada Republican’s transformation from a public official who once opposed granting “amnesty” to undocumented residents to one who said Wednesday that it would be a worse outcome if Congress failed to act.

“To do nothing now amounts to de facto amnesty for 11 million people who are already here illegally,” Heller said. “We must take action to prevent further unlawful entry. The current system is backwards and it is broken.”

Organized labor and activists in Nevada spent about $100,000 to mount pressure on Heller through television and Internet advertising, more than 4,000 petition cards and constituent calls and emails.

Heller was thanked by Danny Thompson, executive secretary treasurer of the Nevada AFL-CIO.

“Over the past months and years, we have seen countless Nevadans stand up and speak out in favor of comprehensive immigration reform that protects workers’ rights, keeps our families together and creates an attainable pathway to citizenship,” Thompson said in a statement.

“Today, we are proud to count Senator Dean Heller among those supporters.”

Heller’s announced vote comes as Numbers USA, a group opposing the immigration bill, called for a late push to persuade the Nevadan to change his mind.

“What did Sen. Heller get for selling out Nevadans on an amnesty bill that will increase unemployment and lower wages for hardworking Nevadans?” the group said in an advertisement it said was running on the Internet.

Heller in his speech defended his handling of the immigration issue against criticism it has been motivated by political self-protection.

“Working with members from both sides of the aisle does not mean you are turning your back on your principles,” said Heller, who was among senators who formed the toughened border security plan that was adopted Wednesday.

Republicans can support immigration reform “and still stay true to their conservative principles,” Heller said.

He is among 13 to 15 Republicans expected to vote for final passage, with the entire Senate Democratic caucus.

Two Heller amendments sought by the tourism industry to ease implementation of an entry-exit system at the nation’s airports were made part of the final deal.

Another Heller amendment granting Nevada a seat on a federal border security commission was approved last week.

Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at stetreault@stephensmedia.com or 202-783-1760. Follow him on Twitter @STetreaultDC.