What Frank Lautenberg's Death Means for Immigration Reform

PHOTO: In this Oct. 2, 2002 file photo, Frank Lautenberg, center is flanked by Sen. Jon Corzine, D-N.J., left, and Gov. James McGreevey, in Trenton, N.J. Lautenberg died Monday, June 3, 2013 at age 89.

Rich Schultz, File/AP Photo

New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) passed away on Monday at the age of 89, leaving the Senate without its oldest member and last World War II veteran.

But his death isn't just a marker of a new generation in the Senate, it carries immediate political repercussions.

Among them is a massive overhaul of the nation's immigration laws that is expected to hit the Senate floor next week. The bipartisan coalition backing the bill will need to cobble together 60 votes in order to break a potential GOP filibuster.

Lautenberg had been a reliable liberal vote for Democratic leaders throughout his time in the Senate. In 2012, he was ranked the sixth most liberal senator by National Journal. He even received a 100 percent rating from the American Immigration Lawyers Association in 2010, which supports immigration reform, according to Project Vote Smart.

Without Lautenberg, the number of senators who caucus with the Democrats goes from 55 to 54. Even if all four Republicans on the bipartisan Gang of Eight stick together and support the bill, and all Democrats vote for it, two additional Republican votes would be needed to avoid a potential filibuster.

That's not to mention the 70 votes the bill's sponsors hope to attract in order to prod the House to act.

The thing is, not every Senate Democrat has indicated they will support the immigration bill, and the bill's authors might need to make tweaks and concessions in the legislation in order to attract more Republican votes, like they did to get Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) to vote the bill out of committee. Just last week, Democratic Gang of Eight member Bob Menendez (N.J.) said that the group had not yet identified 60 votes for the bill. That means every vote counts.

And yet, it's very possible to get the necessary number of votes without Lautenberg's seat. As many as six non-Gang of Eight Republicans (if not more) are considered to be "gettable" on immigration. If 10 Republicans (six plus four that are part of the Gang of Eight) vote for the bill, that means that Democrats could afford four defections and still break a possible filibuster.

How Lautenberg's seat is filled matters too. If the winner of a potential special election or an appointee of Gov. Chris Christie (R) favors immigration reform, then that means Democrats keep their vote.

Regardless, his passing could be politically significant to more than just immigration reform. As The Atlantic Wire notes, he'll sorely be missed by Democrats on issues like gun control, judicial appointments and virtually every other topic that's on Congress' plate in 2013.

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