WASHINGTON -- A comprehensive immigration bill survived a significant test yesterday as the Senate voted to keep a provision that would let hundreds of thousands of temporary foreign workers enter the country each year.
If the guest worker program, part of the "grand bargain" negotiated with the Bush administration by a bipartisan group of 12 senators, had been stripped from the bill, the fragile deal could have collapsed.
Despite the vote yesterday, supporters of the bill were clearly on the defensive.
Sen. Mel Martinez, a Florida Republican who helped write the bill, said eliminating the guest worker program would be a "huge problem" for the architects of the proposal.
Martinez said they "could live with" a separate amendment to scale back the program to 200,000 workers, as proposed by Sen. Jeff Bingaman, a New Mexico Democrat. Senators from both parties said it was likely that this second proposal would pass.
Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, the chief Republican architect of the bill, said public opinion on the measure was being shaped by "misconceptions, misunderstandings and misinformation."
Kyl said he received a mixed reception yesterday when he described the bill at a meeting of House Republicans.
"A lot of them are pretty skeptical," Kyl said.
More skepticism and fierce criticism of the bill could greet lawmakers when they return home for the weeklong Memorial Day recess.
Martinez said supporters of the bill could use the time to rebut criticism and correct misinformation about it.
Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski said the bill would increase the number of seasonal workers allowed into the United States from 66,000 annually to as many as 200,000.
"Without these seasonal workers, many businesses would not survive," the Maryland Democrat, who has championed the seasonal worker visa program to aid the state's crab industry, said in a statement. "It is time to permanently protect workers and small businesses, so that we do not have to fight year after year for temporary fixes."
Senators of both parties said their offices had been flooded with telephone calls from constituents criticizing a provision of the bill that would offer legal status to most of the 12 million illegal immigrants.
"It's so hard to grapple with this amnesty argument," Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, co-author of the bill, said. "Amnesty is absolute forgiveness of transgressions. This bill is not amnesty."
The Senate Democratic whip, Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, said: "This bill is drawing opposition from business, labor, Democrats, Republicans, theists and nontheists, American League and National League baseball fans. What I'm trying to say to you is there's more opposition to this bill than support."
But Durbin said, "The force behind this compromise is the understanding that if we fail, the process ends probably for the next two years."
The vote yesterday was on a proposal by Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat, to eliminate the temporary worker program. His amendment failed, 64-31.
Employers say they want to hire foreign workers because they cannot find Americans to fill all the jobs in hotels, restaurants, nursing homes, hospitals and the construction industry.
Under the bill, 400,000 to 600,000 temporary foreign workers could enter the United States each year on two-year visas.
Dorgan said the numbers in the bill understated the size of the program. Because workers could renew their visas, he said, the number could total 1.1 million in the third year and could grow to 3.6 million in the 10th year.
Among the Democrats voting to kill the guest worker program were the majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada; the majority whip, Durbin; Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia; and Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination.
Two other Democratic presidential hopefuls, Barack Obama of Illinois and Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, were absent. So was Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who is seeking the Republican nomination.
Sun reporter Matthew Hay Brown contributed to this article.