WASHINGTON -- The Senate began debate yesterday on a sweeping bipartisan bill that could yield the most significant changes in the nation's immigration law in 20 years.
Before lawmakers voted 69-23 to begin the debate, the bill's opponents promised a bruising fight, taking to the Senate floor to protest the way the measure was written, the way it will be debated and what it would do.
Some Republicans have said that they want to scrap the provision that would allow illegal immigrants to gain citizenship, a key objective for Democrats.
Democrats have set their sights on the Republican-sponsored attempt to reduce the emphasis on reuniting families and to create a merit-based system meant to help the economy.
A small bipartisan coalition that crafted the legislation plans to meet daily to identify threats to the bill and decide when to band together to vote in its defense.
Amid Republican complaints that the bill's language had not been made final, its bipartisan authors warned that an aggressive attack might undermine their unity and endanger the bill.
"We have a fragile coalition," said Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican who is a leading member of the group. "If there are any changes on the fundamentals of the grand bargain, we're going to run the risk of losing senators. The issues are enormous. No domestic issue is of greater importance than this one, because today on immigration, we have anarchy."
Immediately after the procedural vote to start debate, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada announced that he would allocate two weeks for debate. Republicans pushed hard for more time after Reid initially suggested that the Senate should finish by Memorial Day.
Reid started the day by acknowledging that the bill is flawed.
"Nearly everyone agrees that the existing bill is imperfect," he said. "What we have now is a starting point."
For both sides, the bill presents complications and political risks, and some lawmakers have left the coalition that drew it up. The group of about 12 senators, roughly half from each party, formed the core group that met over three months with Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez to draft the bill.
Democratic members include the lead negotiator, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, Sen. Diane Feinstein of California and Sen. Ken Salazar of Colorado. Republicans include Specter, Sen. Lindsey Graham of North Carolina and their lead negotiator, Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl.
Specter said members would vote their consciences on amendments unless they posed a risk to the bill's core "grand bargain."
Democrats drafting the bill agreed to a temporary-worker program that would not allow participants to remain permanently in the United States, a source of deep concern to immigrant advocates and some unions that traditionally support Democrats.
The same Democrats challenged the acquiescence to Republican demands to reduce the emphasis on family ties for future immigration.
Republicans, who have been sharply divided over the issue of what opponents of the measure call amnesty, are struggling over the "Z visa," which would allow the nation's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants to live legally in the United States for eight years and work toward citizenship.
Several Republican lawmakers took the Senate floor to lodge complaints. Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, who led opposition to the bill yesterday, objected to the closed-door work by the coalition's work.
"Who was in this room where you all met?" he asked. "Who's going to decide what's in that bill? The whole Senate or not?"
Sen. David Vitter, a Louisiana Republican, objected to the scant time senators were given to prepare.
"The first time this legislation was available to me was 2 a.m. on Saturday," he said, adding that it could be 1,000 pages long in its final form.
"Why are we in rush to pass this bill? If the American people fully understood what was buried in this bill, they would be outraged."
Nicole Gaouette writes for the Los Angeles Times.