Key vote pushes immigration bill closer to defeat

Dave Montgomery
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

WASHINGTON - President Bush suffered a devastating setback on his top domestic priority on Thursday as a broad immigration bill collapsed in the Senate amid an irreconcilable partisan standoff.

The 627-page bill was taken off the Senate floor at the end of a bitterly contentious day that saw the bill's sponsors desperately trying to resolve differences between Democrats and Republicans over GOP demands to offer additional amendments.

Senators, for the second time in a span of hours, voted overwhelmingly Thursday night against a motion to cut off debate, prompting Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to pull the bill. But Reid and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., both declined to proclaim the bill dead and expressed hope of resuming work on the bill if they find a way out of the deadlock.

The prospects for reviving and ultimately passing the bill appeared uncertain, but supporters insisted it could be done.

"We're still open for business on this bill," said Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., a leading Republican supporter of the measure.

Others, however, offered a more pessimistic assessment.

Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., proclaimed the bill on "life support."

Crafted by a bipartisan group of senators after three months of negotiations with the White House, the bill seeks to legalize millions of undocumented immigrants, create a temporary guest-worker program, toughen security along the U.S. borders with Mexico and Canada, and crack down on employers who hire illegal workers.

Bush, who has called for immigration changes since the outset of his presidency, has aggressively committed his administration to passing the bill, even criticizing Republicans who denounce it.

If the bill isn't revived, it would mark the president's second defeat on the issue within the span of a year and would invite a political backlash in advance of the 2008 presidential election.

A diverse array of interests, from business to pro-immigration groups to conservatives demanding toughened border security, has long bemoaned the nation's immigration system and looked to the White House and Congress for changes.

But the compromise was laden with what even supporters called imperfections, and it failed to attract enthusiastic public support, signaling the difficulty in trying to find a solution to one of the nation's most volatile issues. An earlier immigration bill passed the Senate in 2006 but died in a stalemate with the House of Representatives.

Pro-immigration groups expressed dismay after the bill was shelved.

"Tonight, the United States Senate let America down," said Clarissa Martinez, campaign manager for the Coalition for Comprehensive Immigration Reform, an immigration advocacy coalition.

Warnings surfaced throughout the day that the bill was in trouble after the Senate, by a vote of 33-63, rejected an initial cloture motion to shut off debate. The second motion came hours later, at mid-evening, after a day of background negotiations and calls to lawmakers from White House emissaries.

In the second test vote, senators voted 45-50 against cutting off debate, well below the 60-vote super-majority needed for approval. Thirty-eight Republicans, 11 Democrats, and one independent voted against the motion, while seven Republicans, 37 Democrats and one independent voted for it.

Perhaps the most prominent no vote came from Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., the leading Republican architect of the bipartisan compromise.

Reid had pressed for the cloture motions to begin winding down debate and limiting an onslaught of amendments that he claimed was aimed at killing the bill. The majority leader, while stressing the importance of immigration legislation, said the Senate had committed adequate time to the bill and needed to move on to other issues.

Republicans agreed among themselves to vote against the cloture vote to press their point that Democrats were bottling up needed amendments. In turn, Reid charged that the Republicans were engaging in stalling tactics and said he would withdraw the bill if the second cloture vote failed.

"We need to have the record reflect that this bill isn't going anyplace, but it's not our fault," Reid told fellow senators at midday Thursday.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., told reporters in the early evening that Democratic leaders planned to present Republicans with a proposed agreement that promised votes on 10 of their amendments.

Reid said he called Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who helped draft the compromise bill, to warn him of potential headlines reading, "President Fails Again." The Cabinet secretary and other administration officials reportedly were making calls and meeting with lawmakers Thursday to keep the bill on track.

The bill's Senate architects -- nicknamed the "Grand Bargainers" -- confronted their most serious setbacks during the past two days as the Senate passed amendments that would phase out the guest-worker program in five years and enable law enforcement officers to investigate, and likely deport, illegal immigrants who unsuccessfully applied for Z visas that would have allowed them to remain in the country legally.

The amendment to the guest-worker program, sponsored by Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., passed at midnight Wednesday by a vote of 49-48 and was widely seen as a potential deal-breaker that threatened to unravel the delicate coalition aligned behind the bill.

"Apparently it blows the deal up for the Grand Bargainers," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who sponsored the successful amendment permitting the investigations of Z visa applicants. "That was a big surprise. Somebody miscalculated."

Sponsors of the immigration bill, however, downplayed the impact of the two amendments and said they'd try to repair the damage by negotiating a compromise with the amendments' sponsors.

McConnell remained insistent that Republicans would stand firm against ending debate until Reid assured them that they'd be allowed an adequate number of amendments on key issues.

"We'll not allow a process that allows so few amendments," McConnell said. "The majority is simply not going to get anywhere trying to stop the minority."

Supporters on both sides of the aisle were insistent that the bill could be resurrected.

"Oh, no, it's not dead," said South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican member of the bipartisan coalition.

But Graham's fellow South Carolina Republican, Sen. Jim DeMint, said the legislation was beyond repair.

"While I have had very serious concerns about this bill from the beginning, I have been hopeful we could improve it through debate and amendments. Unfortunately, this hasn't happened, and it's actually gotten worse," DeMint said. "It's time to scrap this mess of a bill."

Democrats contended that they'd been more than accommodating in granting Republicans abundant amendments. McConnell "wants a longer parade; he wants more and more floats," said Deputy Democratic Leader Richard Durbin, D-Ill.

Reid and other Democrats called on Bush to pressure wavering Republicans to support the measure. "We want to help him and we are helping him," Reid said. "He can't help himself."

The acrimonious mood contrasted with earlier optimism among supporters that the bill was on its way to passage, despite assaults from the left and right. But Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., another Grand Bargainer, said he remained hopeful "that we can get this done" and said the bipartisan coalition is still "fairly united."

Senators were showing signs of growing frustration, particularly after a contentious 12-hour debate that stretched past midnight Wednesday. "This process makes a pretzel looks relaxed," said Specter.

Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott, R-Miss., the Senate's No. 2 Republican, who's likely to support the bill, said the immigration issue is too important to die in a parliamentary stalemate.

"For the Senate not to try to bring itself to act, up or down, would be tragic," said Lott. "We need to get our act together."

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