Senate Republicans, united, defeat DREAM Act

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Martins and the Republicans voted no. (Jimmy Vielkind)
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ALBANY—In a controversial and unscheduled vote, the State Senate rejected a bill to give undocumented immigrants access to state tuition assistance programs, one of several priority measures for progressive Democratic groups and unions.

The measure, known as the DREAM Act, previously passed the Democrat-dominated Assembly, and Governor Andrew Cuomo has said he would sign it. It's unclear what path forward, if any, it has during this legislative session.

There was plenty of drama during the vote, which was a rare instance of a bill whose fate was not pre-determined.

Senator Jeff Klein, who leads the five-member, Republican-allied Independent Democratic Conference, won the floor vote during budget negotiations and delivered a solid bloc of support. Klein and Senate Republican leader Dean Skelos jointly control which bills come to a final vote.

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During his floor speech, Klein said the bill would “level the playing field” for high school students. Other supportive senators spoke of the long-term economic boost from the bill, as well as the way it continues New York's tradition of welcoming and embracing immigrants.

On top of the I.D.C., the State Senate contains 29 Republicans, 24 mainstream Democrats, two Democrats who are under indictment as well as Simcha Felder, a Brooklyn Democrat who sits with Republicans. (Two seats are vacant.)

At least one mainstream Democrat—Rochester's Ted O'Brien—was not a committed supporter walking into the chamber. At least one member of the Republican conference had to join him in coming out in support of the measure during the floor vote.

Advocates of the DREAM Act had suggested two Republicans from Long Island—Jack Martins and Phil Boyle—could be supporters. Boyle was not present for the vote, citing the need to attend a funeral, but said before leaving Albany that he remained opposed. That left Martins, a former mayor from Mineola whose district has swung between Democrats and Republicans in recent years.

The Senate's vote was taken in alphabetical order by surname. In 2009, when a bill legalizing same-sex marriage failed, pundits said there was a cascading effect when an alphabetically early senator voted no.

All eyes were on Martins, who explained his no vote by saying the bill was drafted too broadly.

“We are a country of immigrants, we all understand that. Some of us are sons of immigrants, grandchildren of immigrants, and I want to thank my colleagues for their eloquent pleas,” he said. “If this bill was about those children who arrived here as infants, and providing them an opportunity … we'd be having a different discussion. … Let's be frank: this isn't what this bill is about. This bill opens the door far wider than that.”

The bill was two votes short on the final tally: No Republicans voted in support of the measure, and O'Brien was the only Democrat who voted nay.

("The overwhelming sentiment in my district is that we should not use taxpayer resources to fund higher education for undocumented immigrants at a time when our state’s universities and community colleges are already woefully underfunded," O'Brien explained in a statement after the vote.)

The vote gives a political boost to multiple parties. Klein and the I.D.C. brought a vote where they had promised, and can credibly claim they're getting results. Sen. David Valesky, an I.D.C. senator from Syracuse, said it showed "the strongest day for this coalition yet."

Republicans gained an on-record vote from several marginal Democrats—including Poughkeepsie senator Terry Gipson and senator Cecilia Tkaczyk, who represents a rural district in the Catskills—for the coming campaigns. Democrats, in turn, gained what they think will be a winning issue against Brooklyn senator Marty Golden and others on Long Island, including Martins and Boyle.

Several dozen Assembly members of both parties were in the chamber for the voting, but the galleries were empty. Senate Democratic leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins noted this during her speech. 

"I stand here hoping that sooner rather than later, we'll have the galleries filled, we'll have the support we need on both sides of the aisle," she said.

Klein said he was “disappointed” about the outcome, “but at the same time, I think it's difficult not to have a united Democratic conference—all Democrats, I.D.C., regular Democrats—on such an important issue and to expect Republicans to support such an important piece of legislation.”

Peralta blamed Republicans—not Klein. But Queens senator Mike Gianaris said Klein was falling short of his pretense for breaking with other Democrats in 2011, when he promised to win G.O.P. support for progressive legislation.

“Today he failed miserably—there were zero votes,” said Gianaris. “If Senator Klein thinks things should pass when there's only Democratic support, why did he leave?”