Migrant bill hits wall in Senate

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- The Senate bill to revamp the nation's immigration laws stalled last night after Democrats and Republicans deadlocked over how many more amendments to debate, dealing a major setback to President Bush and the unusual bipartisan team that crafted the legislation.

Lawmakers rejected an attempt to move toward a final vote on the bill, a defeat that jeopardizes prospects for a comprehensive overhaul of immigration laws this year - and possibly for several years - even as public anger and anxiety about the issue has reached a high pitch.

Opponents of the bill, who had become increasingly assertive during the two weeks of debate, hailed its apparent failure as a victory for "sanity," but supporters insisted that they would try to revive the legislation over the next several weeks.

"It makes no sense to fold our tent, and I certainly don't intend to," said the lead Democratic negotiator, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts. "I believe we're well within reach of a realistic solution, and I believe we have the will to find it. We can't afford not to. Failure is not an option."

The 45-50 vote to end debate, far short of the 60 votes needed, came after a day of tense backroom negotiations between Democrats and Republicans. It followed an earlier attempt to end debate that failed 33-63. Both sides took to the Senate floor after the second vote to blame the stubbornness of the other side for the bill's failure.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, immediately announced that he would pull the bill from consideration and move on to energy legislation.

"Even though I'm disappointed, I look forward to passing this bill," Reid said after the vote. "We are committed to immigration reform. We believe the country needs it," Reid said. "Let's have President Bush work with us on this."

Bush, who has chastised Republican critics for denouncing the bill as "amnesty" for illegal immigrants, was at the Group of Eight summit in Germany yesterday.

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, noting "the disastrous status quo that we have on immigration in America today," insisted that Democrats could have gotten the bill passed had they allowed Republicans to vote on more amendments. Seven Republicans voted to support the bill.

Although McConnell acknowledged that some Republicans would never vote for the bill, he rebuked Reid for not trying harder to win over more moderate Republicans. "The key is the rest of us," McConnell said.

The chances that Congress could pass such controversial legislation are widely seen as diminishing as the presidential election approaches and are also seen as unlikely in the first year of a new president's term.

At the heart of the 789-page bill is a political trade-off between Democrats and Republicans, who proudly touted it as a "grand bargain" that would allow both sides to claim victories. Some senators, opponents and supporters alike, suggested that the bill should be broken into pieces.

Democrats who helped assemble the bill included a process to give most of the nation's illegal immigrants, estimated at 12 million or more, a way to achieve legal status by passing background checks, paying fines and fees, and eventually learning English.

Republicans involved in the negotiations championed one of the bill's most significant features, a shift in the criteria for future immigration from a family-based system to a point system that would put greater emphasis on skills and education. And they also ensured that the bill's temporary guest worker program would not allow participants to become legal permanent residents. The bill also included a worker program for the agriculture industry.

Before these provisions could take effect, however, the bill would require substantial improvements in border security and work-site enforcement. To protect the southern border, the bill would add thousands of border agents, hundreds of miles of vehicle barriers and fence, and many more camera towers. Employers would have to pay increased penalties for illegal hiring and use an electronic verification system to check a worker's status.

But opposition to the deal grew over the two weeks of debate. Conservatives branded the legalization plan "amnesty," religious groups decried the weakened emphasis on family immigration, immigrant groups complained that temporary workers could never become citizens, and businesses were upset about the point system, which would end their ability to bring in specific employees with the exact skills they needed.

Even before yesterday's votes, the bill was in trouble. The Senate has voted on 42 amendments, some that gave both Republicans and Democrats pause.

An amendment passed early yesterday would have ended the bill's temporary worker program after five years, angering conservative supporters who were concerned that it had lost much of its usefulness when an earlier amendment halved its size to 200,000 workers.

The bill became more conservative with the amendments, leaving some Democrats increasingly uncomfortable. One amendment would have made English the country's "national language." Another would have given the Department of Homeland Security access to rejected legalization applications, which would allow them to use that information to round up illegal immigrants.

Conservatives who despised the bill hailed its demise.

Calling the bill's defeat "a victory for sanity in our country," Sen. Jim DeMint, a South Carolina Republican, said, "They kept insisting it had to be the whole apple, and I just think the American people were choking on it."

California's Sen. Barbara Boxer, among the 11 Democrats and 1 independent who voted not to move forward with the bill, said she was troubled by the temporary worker program, which she feared could exploit immigrants and depress the wages of Americans competing against them.

Nicole Gaouette and Maura Reynolds write for the Los Angeles Times.

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