WASHINGTON -- Supporters of a comprehensive immigration reform bill have successfully repelled a series of attacks on the Senate floor, ensuring that the bill would survive its first week and significantly raising the prospects that the Senate will pass the controversial measure.
The fragile bipartisan coalition behind the bill thwarted a bid yesterday to end the temporary worker program after five years, a one-vote victory they saw as a signal that they will be able to parry efforts to undermine the bill.
"At the end of this week, we are still together and we're moving forward to accomplish what's going to be tough and fair and practical, realistic immigration reform for our country," said Sen. Ken Salazar, a Colorado Democrat who helped negotiate the compromise bill.
The measure - being called the "grand bargain" - would provide a path to citizenship for the estimated 12 million illegal workers but reduce the number of green cards available to family members, while increasing those for workers with needed skills. It has been denounced on the right as an "amnesty" and on the left as a measure that would take jobs from Americans.
President Bush, who has endorsed the compromise, used his harshest language so far yesterday to denounce members of his party who deride what would be the first major immigration overhaul since 1986 as amnesty.
"Anything short of kicking them out, as far as some people are concerned, is called amnesty," Bush said during a news conference. "You can't kick them out. Anybody who advocates trying to dig out 12 million people who have been in our society for a while is sending a signal to the American people that's just not real."
Yesterday, proponents narrowly killed an amendment that would have ended the bill's temporary worker program after five years. The program, which the Senate scaled back earlier this week, would allow up to 200,000 foreign workers a year into the country.
The measure was defeated, 49-48, only when Sen. Daniel K. Akaka, a Hawaii Democrat, changed his vote after an entreaty from Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the bill's main Democratic sponsor.
Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, a key Republican supporter of the bill, praised Akaka for putting the fate of the bill ahead of his opposition to one element of it.
"He wasn't prepared to bring the bill down," Specter said. "Each of us has done that on many, many occasions. We have voted against our personal preference because the totality of the bill is so important."
Debate on the bill is scheduled to continue today, but the Senate has no more votes planned until after its weeklong holiday recess.
In other votes yesterday, senators resoundingly defeated an amendment that would have eliminated a key part of the bill: the contentious plan to allow most illegal immigrants who arrived in this country before Jan. 1, 2007, to apply for visas that would allow them to stay eight years. Although immigrants would have to pay fines and meet other requirements before earning the visas and possibly becoming citizens, Republican opponents have criticized the plan as an amnesty.
The amendment lost 66-29.
"In my opinion and in the opinion of many Americans, this is amnesty pure and simple," said Sen. David Vitter, a Louisiana Republican and the amendment's sponsor. He argued that the immigration bill repeats the errors in the 1986 immigration reform, "when we did amnesty but not enough enforcement."
"This is not 1986," responded an irate Kennedy, raising his vote on the Senate floor.
Senators also defeated a measure that would have permitted law enforcement officers to question individuals about their immigration status if they had "probable cause" to believe they might be illegal.
And they adopted an amendment that exempts children of some Filipino World War II veterans from numerical limits on visas.
Supporters of the immigration compromise said the week's scorecard suggested the "grand bargain" would survive the legislative process, at least in the Senate. The bill's fate in the House of Representatives is less certain.
"We see essentially no enormous roadblocks or no poison pills or no killer amendments ahead that we can't deal with," Specter said.
Republican supporters of the bill acknowledged the vehement opposition among their political base.
"Yes, I have learned some new words from some of my constituents," joked Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, a leader of the opposition to last year's immigration bill who switched to support this year's version. "But I do think that, as we have been able to explain the bill and to answer some of the questions and dispel some of the myths, people have begun to realize that the bill is not quite as bad" as they thought.
Maura Reynolds writes for the Los Angeles Times.