Chiesa's first test: immigration

Acting Senator Jeffrey Chiesa is the first Republican to represent New Jersey in the Senate since 1982, when Nicholas Brady was chosen by Gov. Tom Kean to serve out a term after Harrison Williams resigned amid scandal. The last time New Jersey elected a Republican to the Senate was in 1972. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

WASHINGTON -- Steve Lonegan, a conservative running for Senate, tried to pull the state’s new Republican Senator, Jeff Chiesa, to the right on the issue Tuesday, zeroing in the most significant issue Chiesa is likely to face in his short tenure.

Chiesa's position will inevitably reflect on the national profile of the man who appointed him, Gov. Christie. It will also be the issue on which Democrats may most miss the reliable support of the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg, who for now has been replaced by a Republican.

“This legislation is a pure and simple amnesty for illegal aliens and if I were a member of the U.S. Senate, I would vote no,” Lonegan said in a news release. He sent out a portion of his statement on Twitter with the hash-tags #amnesty and #teaparty.

Lonegan, heavily favored to win the Republican nomination for Senate, also said he left a voice mail with Chiesa, urging him to also oppose the measure, and he urged supporters to call the senator, too.

Hours later, Chiesa voted with the vast majority of the Senate to move forward with debate on the sweeping reform package backed by the so-called “Gang of Eight.”

Although the issue is highly divisive, this particular vote was not. It was a procedural step backed by 82 of 100 senators, including local Sens. Bob Casey (D., Pa.), Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) and Bob Menendez (D., N.J.).

The true test of Chiesa's views may come later this month, when the Senate is expected to vote on the substance of the bill.

Chiesa, sworn into office Monday and slated to serve until an October special election, said after the vote that he is still learning the issues. As the debate moves along, he said, he hopes to understand “how the bill impacts my state and the country.”

In just his first full day as a senator, Chiesa was still setting up his office and staff Tuesday.

Menendez, a member of the bipartisan group that crafted the bill, appeared on MSNBC Tuesday morning to advocate for the measure, saying Republicans have to support the measure if they want to win national elections.

“They understand if they want to be or have any hope to be a majority party that they’re going to have to change their views with reference to the immigrant communities in this country,” Menendez said, predicting that the measure will win the 60 votes needed to defeat a filibuster and pass. “I think people want to be on the right side of history here.”

He said the bill does not allow “amnesty” – as many critics argue – but includes a difficult road to citizenship.

“This is about solving a problem that the American people say it’s past time to fix,” Menendez said.