WASHINGTON -- Supporters of the Senate immigration bill rebuffed all but one of the most serious challenges to the legislation yesterday, setting up a critical vote today that could decide the fate of the most ambitious attempt to overhaul immigration laws in two decades.
In a series of votes steadily interrupted by Republicans intent on stalling the proceedings, lawmakers rejected amendments aimed at gutting two key features of the bill: one provision that would allow illegal immigrants to seek legal status and another that would shift the basis for future immigration from an emphasis on immigrants with family ties to those with needed skills and education.
But supporters suffered a major setback late yesterday when lawmakers approved an amendment that the bill's backers and the Bush administration said would undermine the legislation's effectiveness.
The amendment targeted the bill's work-site enforcement section, removing all provisions that required "Real ID" driver's licenses - tamper-proof, secure identification that does not yet exist but that the bill's supporters consider essential to cracking down on illegal hiring.
Repeated objections from Republican opponents of the bill meant that the Senate could not consider other amendments to toughen enforcement against illegal immigrants. The bill's sponsors had hoped those amendments would bolster Republican support for the bill.
Without that incentive, the bipartisan team behind the bill will have to convince their skeptical colleagues to support the legislation in exchange for promises that the enforcement measures can be added later.
Last night, the bill's central Democratic architect, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, struck a somber note as he urged members to "exercise best judgment" on today's "important and decisive vote" and reminded them they could keep working on the bill.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, a staunch opponent of the bill, insisted that there was an erosion of support and asked his colleagues to "end this thing tomorrow." The Alabama Republican said the bill "can't be fixed in its present form."
If the bill fails today in the Senate, the future of broad immigration overhaul is in doubt. The House is unlikely to take up immigration as leaders there want the Senate to proceed first, but some lawmakers say Congress could take up tightly focused bills that deal with border security or work-site enforcement.
This would be a blow to President Bush, who has pinned his hopes of a domestic policy achievement on a bill, like the Senate's, that addresses enforcement and border security, creates a temporary worker program and legalizes most of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the country. Nicole Gaouette and Noam N. Levey write for the Los Angeles Times.