WASHINGTON — President Reagan pledged Thursday to sign sweeping immigration reform legislation but a final Senate vote to send it to his desk hit a snag when a conservative opponent refused to cut short debate on the measure.
The bill, designed to curb the influx of illegal aliens by outlawing their hiring, breezed through a test vote by a margin of 75 to 21, indicating that sponsors not only have the strength to pass the measure but also to force an end to efforts to throw procedural roadblocks in its path.
Bill Called 'Unfair'
Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.), who spoke to the chamber on the measure for about an hour, acknowledged that it eventually will be approved, but indicated that for the time being he intended to take advantage of rules allowing lengthy discussion to point out flaws that he said render the bill "absurd" and "unfair."
"The odds are the bill's going to become law, but there are points in the bill that need to be discussed," Gramm insisted.
Gramm hoped to put pressure on colleagues to drop consideration of the bill as they rush to adjourn Congress so they can go home to campaign before the Nov. 4 elections. When it became obvious that Gramm's oration would be lengthy, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) temporarily dropped the bill and moved on to other legislation.
Chief Senate sponsor Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.) said the test vote margin indicated that, when the bill is brought back up, he could easily muster the 60 votes necessary to invoke cloture and shut off debate. Such a vote could be taken as early as today.
Earlier Thursday, Simpson met at the White House with Reagan and Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III and secured a promise of support from Reagan. Though the President long had urged passage of an immigration bill, Administration officials had indicated that his support might be wavering.
At Thursday's meeting, Reagan expressed reservations to Simpson about a controversial anti-discrimination amendment authored by Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.). The amendment would outlaw discrimination against job holders or applicants merely because they are not citizens.
Reagan Assured on Suits
But Simpson assured Reagan that the Frank provision would not invite an avalanche of discrimination lawsuits or require additional enforcement machinery in the Justice Department's civil rights division.
"I'm sure he's going to be right there, pen in hand, if we get our work done," Simpson said after the session.
The immigration legislation, which has been debated in various forms by Congress for 15 years, seeks to discourage aliens from entering the country illegally by making it more difficult to get the jobs that attract them. Employers would face hefty fines and even jail terms for hiring someone they know is an illegal alien.
Also included in the measure is a generous amnesty provision that offers legal residency to illegal aliens who have been in the country since Jan. 1, 1982.
As debate began Thursday, Simpson said that failure to pass the bill would be a "tragedy" and pointed out that the measure sets aside $4 billion to reimburse state and local governments for the extra welfare and education costs associated with the program. "The cost to America economically and socially (of not passing the bill) will far outweigh that," Simpson said.
Amnesty Provision Assailed
But Gramm said a provision in the bill granting legal status to illegals already in the country would reward lawbreakers while nearly 2 million people--including more than 366,000 from Mexico alone--have their names on waiting lists to obtain visas that would allow them to legally immigrate. He sharply criticized a special, expedited amnesty provision for farm workers that would give them legal status if they could prove that they had worked in American fields for as little as 90 days in the 12-month period that ended May 1.
"It is an absolute absurdity, a clear preference over the 2 million people who are waiting," he said.
Despite Gramm's criticisms, the immigration bill would not change or slow the present rate of legal immigration from Mexico or other countries, officials said. Last year, 61,077 Mexicans legally moved to the United States. Many more Mexicans are believed to have entered illegally, however.
Staff writer Eleanor Clift also contributed to this story.