WASHINGTON -- The beleaguered immigration bill makes a much-anticipated return to the Senate floor today, with some senators saying that a critical procedural vote will signal whether the legislation will be defeated or eventually clear the Senate.
If today's showdown vote - on a motion to officially revive the bill - fails to procure the 60 votes needed to pass, it will probably be the end of the road for comprehensive immigration reform this year. But if it passes, senators are predicting - some grudgingly - that it would herald Senate passage of the measure by week's end. The bill then would go to the House for further debate.
The complicated measure, among other things, aims to improve border security, introduce employee verification procedures to ensure that workers are in the United States legally and put an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants already in the country on a path to citizenship.
The bill's opponents are forecasting its demise, claiming a steady erosion of support among senators and the American public over the past few weeks. But some of the legislation's biggest opponents did not seem confident yesterday that they would be able to prevent the bill from moving forward.
"We do still have a shot to stop it," said Sen. Jim DeMint, a South Carolina Republican, "but it's only going to be if the American people raise the level of their voices in the next 24 hours."
Grass-roots appeals have been a key factor for several senators, whose offices have been inundated with phone calls from constituents, most calling on their lawmakers to abandon the bill.
But President Bush and several key lobbyists were also working the phones this weekend, contacting undecided senators and urging them to back the bill through the procedural motions to expedite consideration of the measure.
The immigration bill was left for dead three weeks ago, when several Republicans and a group of about a dozen staunchly pro-labor Democrats voted down three motions to proceed, arguing that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, had not given senators enough time to present amendments.
After days of negotiations, Reid, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell a Kentucky Republican, and several of the original architects of the compromise legislation agreed to a limited list of about two dozen additional amendments, split between Republicans and Democrats, to be brought up when debate resumed.
That list includes several sweeping measures, such as an amendment proposed by Republican Sens. Jon Kyl of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Mel Martinez of Florida, to close several "loopholes" in the legislation, among them replacing the 24-hour time limit for criminal background checks of immigrant visa applicants with no time restriction, and permanently barring from the country those who have been deported after they overstayed their visas.
The amendment is being presented as a comprehensive measure to placate the concerns of Republicans, who see the bill as too weak on enforcement.
Reid might allow votes on some of the more contentious amendments before moving to the showdown vote. If the Senate then decides to push ahead toward potential passage, Reid could decide to package the remaining amendments for a single vote in an arcane tactic known as a "clay pigeon," in order to prevent senators from introducing still more amendments.
Karoun Demirjian writes for the Chicago Tribune.