WASHINGTON — After a day of partisan feuding over illegal immigration, Senate Republicans and Democrats agreed Thursday to commit $3 billion to gain "operational control" over the southern U.S. border within two years.
The money would be used to build more fencing, vehicle barriers, and camera and radar towers, as well as hire additional border and immigration agents.
The decision to attach the funding to the Homeland Security spending bill puts President Bush -- who has said he would veto the overall legislation -- in the uncomfortable position of opposing a popular initiative to improve border security.
The 89-1 vote came just two months after the Senate failed to pass a broad immigration bill amid an impassioned assault by critics who branded it as "amnesty" for illegal immigrants. And it reignited the debate in the Senate over two of the thorniest issues: whether the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. should be allowed to become citizens, and whether enforcement alone can stem illegal immigration.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) stressed that the $3-billion amendment to the $37.6-billion domestic security bill was just a start to overhauling immigration laws. "Democrats believe stronger border security is an important first step toward fixing our broken immigration system, and we will continue to work toward the enactment of comprehensive immigration reform," he said.
The bill passed later Thursday, 89 to 4.
Republicans and Democrats had tangled on the Senate floor Wednesday over a more punitive version of the amendment. But Reid and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) came to a late-night agreement that eliminated some elements Republicans had backed, such as a measure allowing hospital workers and police to ask about immigration status.
"Some say we've tried enforcement. We really haven't, in my view," Cornyn said. "We can do it, it's just a matter of political will."
The amendment passed Thursday would pay for substantial increases in manpower -- boosting the number of Border Patrol agents to 23,000 from the current 12,000 and adding customs and immigration agents, human smuggling investigators and deputy marshals.
It also would finance significant new fortifications along the 2,000-mile border with Mexico: 700 miles of fencing, 300 miles of vehicle barriers, 105 camera and radar towers, and four unmanned aerial vehicles.
The measure would bolster other enforcement efforts as well: It would reimburse state and local governments for the cost of helping federal agents enforce immigration laws, improve systems to allow employers to check worker eligibility, and require the deportation of people who overstay their visas. The measure also would ensure that federal officials have the space to detain up to 45,000 illegal border crossers at one time.
"This $3 billion is as necessary for national security as any spending we do in Iraq," said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), the amendment's author.
Graham had been a central supporter of the Senate's failed immigration bill and had argued that the only way to overhaul the system would be comprehensively.
But in the wake of that bill's demise and amid withering criticism from his constituents, Graham -- who is up for reelection next year -- began to argue that it was time to approach the immigration problem in stages.
On Thursday, he likened the decisive vote to pass his amendment to "having been robbed 12 million times and finally getting around to putting a lock on the door."
Graham's allies in the push for a comprehensive bill were critical Thursday. "The fact is that border security is an important part of a comprehensive package, and everyone knows that this is not the answer," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) said.
But Cornyn, who voted against the comprehensive bill, said the approach to immigration reform would have to be an incremental one. He predicted that heightened enforcement would make it increasingly difficult for employers to find legal workers, leading businesses to pressure Congress to pass more comprehensive reform.
"Frankly, employers were not as vocal as they should have been" during the immigration debate, he said.
Kennedy was asked, within earshot of Graham, whether he agreed with Cornyn's theory. "Say yes," Graham suggested. Kennedy did not answer.
California's two Democratic senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, voted for the amendment.
The lone dissent came from Sen. George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio), who objected to the level of "irresponsible and excessive" spending. Voinovich pointed out that the bill already contained $14.9 billion to pay for port, border and transportation security, as well as funding for first responders in emergencies.
Voinovich also noted that the Department of Homeland Security already spends one-third of its budget on border security and immigration enforcement, "a clear reflection of its priorities."
The House earlier passed its version of the Homeland Security spending bill, and congressional negotiators will decide whether to include the additional border security spending in the final version.
Bush threatened to veto the Senate bill -- which included $2.4 billion more than he had requested even before the $3-billion border amendment. Republican senators said the White House also opposed that amendment. But, they said, the addition of the border spending would make it harder for Bush to veto the bill.
The White House did not return calls for comment.
On Thursday, Reid sent Bush a challenge.
"The Senate demonstrated today that it overwhelmingly supports tough border security," Reid said. "We hope the president shows us he shares our concern by dropping his irresponsible threat to veto the Homeland Security spending bill."