Washington -- Supporters of a bipartisan immigration bill rebuffed yesterday one of the most serious challenges, defeating a measure that could have denied legalization to many illegal immigrants and moving the complicated legislation a step closer to passage in the Senate.
Senate Democratic leaders, fearing an erosion of support for the bill if debate drags on, are pushing for a final vote by the end of the week or early next week. The bill would then move to the House, where it is expected to face stiffer opposition.
"We've got one good chance to get this legislation passed," said Sen. Jon Kyl, an Arizona Republican and a key supporter of the bill. "Now is the time."
The defeated amendment, proposed by Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, would have permanently barred many convicted felons - including sex offenders, gang members and repeat drunk drivers - from qualifying to become legal permanent residents.
Supporters of the bill said the amendment was written so loosely that it would also have barred those guilty of other felonies, such as violating deportation orders or using false identification documents, and they said that would have applied to a huge number of illegal immigrants.
"We should not allow a path to legalization and citizenship for those who have openly defied our courts, lawful orders of our courts, and who have shown themselves as having no regard for the rule of law," Cornyn argued from the Senate floor before the vote. "What kind of citizens can we expect [of] these individuals who have been ordered deported, who have had their day in court and who simply defied that court order by going on the lam and melting into the American landscape?"
But Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat and the primary Democratic sponsor of the legislation, accused Cornyn of classifying "an array of common, garden-variety immigration offenses as crimes that would make them ineligible for the program."
"The Cornyn amendment that says if you ... have been ordered out of the country by immigration authorities, but if you failed to leave or you came back, you're ineligible," Kennedy said on the Senate floor. "Cornyn says that if you have used false identification, you may be found inadmissible and may be deported. But in our broken system, the people that have wanted to work face the reality of where we are today."
Senators defeated the Cornyn amendment, 51-46.
"We're still on track," said Feinstein, a member of the bipartisan group that drafted the proposal.
The chamber adopted by a vote of 66-32 a measure proposed by Kennedy that included many of the same provisions against violent felons but allowed more discretion for judges in the case of immigration-related offenses.
At the heart of the immigration proposal is an agreement reached by a bipartisan group of senators to allow most of the estimated 12 million illegal workers in the country to apply for legalization in return for building a new system for future immigration that would give greater priority to education and economic need.
The legislation splits both Democrats and Republicans, making the debate and amendment process more unpredictable than usual.
To protect the central agreement in the bill, senators also defeated, on a procedural vote, an amendment that would have increased the number of visas available for family members waiting for green cards in an effort to clear the backlog in applications.
Maura Reynolds writes for the Los Angeles Times.