WASHINGTON -- A comprehensive immigration bill that would boost control of U.S. borders and provide a path to citizenship for an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants already in the U.S. was brought back to life yesterday as the Senate voted 64-35 to resume debate on the controversial measure.
The move, which had been strongly pushed by President Bush, gave hope to the beleaguered immigration bill's advocates that it was showing new signs of life and could pass the Senate by week's end.
"We're back in the ball game," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican.
But yesterday's vote was only a "motion to proceed," meaning the Senate will now resume the volatile debate it had abandoned about two weeks ago amid frustration and recrimination. It is not at all clear that senators who supported resuming debate would ultimately vote to back the bill itself, or upcoming procedural hurdles that must be cleared before the bill can be considered on its merits.
"I'm optimistic," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California and an architect of the original bill. "But it can fall apart at any time."
Fierce battles are expected over the next two days, as the Senate considers a series of 27 amendments, some of which may derail support for the bill if they pass.
The parade of amendments begins with some of the most contentious, such as a proposal from Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, Republican from Texas, which would amend the bill to require that all illegal immigrants of working age currently in the U.S. "touch back" into their home country before they could obtain a "Z" visa and the temporary legal status that comes with it.
Other amendments have also arisen as potential "poison pills" - though senators have been loath to call any proposals outright deal-killers. These include a motion by Sens. Charles Grassley, Republican of Iowa, Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat, and Barack Obama, an Illinois Democrat, to phase out tax information sharing between the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Homeland Security now provided for in the bill.
The bill's supporters are hopeful, however, that other amendments will settle questions and unresolved concerns for senators who might lend their support for the bill if certain changes are made. Sens. Graham, Jon Kyl, an Arizona Republican, and Mel Martinez, a Florida Republican, are presenting a lengthy amendment with several security provisions - including a longer period for background checks, mandatory deportation and permanent ineligibility for re-entry to the U.S. for those who overstay their visas - in the hopes of placating Republicans who feel the measure isn't tough enough on enforcement.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada presented the full list of proposals yesterday using an arcane Senate procedure known as a "clay pigeon," allowing him to group all 27 into a single amendment, divisible into component parts for debate once the measure reaches the floor.
The Senate is scheduled to begin working its way through the list of 27 amendments this morning, and Reid is expected to push for votes on as many of them as possible before the Senate votes tomorrow on whether to cut off debate, and ultimately vote on the bill itself on Friday.
Karoun Demirjian writes for the Chicago Tribune.