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Immigration bill on the ropes

The Senate can't agree on how to handle amendments. Reid plans to pull the measure and move to other business.

June 08, 2007|Nicole Gaouette and Maura Reynolds | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — The Senate bill to revamp the nation's immigration laws stalled Thursday night after Democrats and Republicans deadlocked over how many more amendments to debate, dealing a major setback to President Bush and the unusual bipartisan team that crafted the complex legislation.

Lawmakers late Thursday rejected an attempt to move toward a final vote on the bill, a defeat that jeopardizes prospects for a comprehensive overhaul of immigration laws this year -- and possibly for several years -- even as public anger and anxiety about the issue has reached a roiling pitch.

Opponents of the bill, who had become increasingly assertive during the two weeks of debate, hailed its apparent failure as a victory for "sanity," but supporters insisted that they would try to revive the legislation over the next several weeks.

"It makes no sense to fold our tent, and I certainly don't intend to," said the lead Democratic negotiator, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts. "I believe we're well within reach of a realistic solution, and I believe we have the will to find it. We can't afford not to. Failure is not an option."

The 50-45 vote, 15 votes short of the 60 needed to end debate, came after a day of tense backroom negotiations between Democrats and Republicans. It followed an effort earlier in the day to end debate that failed 63 to 33. Both sides took to the Senate floor after the second vote to blame the stubbornness of the other side for the bill's apparent failure.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) immediately announced that he would pull the bill from consideration and move on to energy legislation. But he left open the possibility that lawmakers could still reach a decision on immigration legislation and called on Bush to do more to help.

"Even though I'm disappointed, I look forward to passing this bill," Reid said after the vote. "There are ways we can do this. There's lots of support for this bill on the outside; the problem was on the inside of this chamber.

"We are committed to immigration reform. We believe the country needs it," Reid said. "Let's have President Bush work with us on this."

Bush, who has chastised Republican critics for denouncing the bill as "amnesty" for illegal immigrants, was at an international summit in Germany on Thursday when the legislation faced its most crucial challenges.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), citing "the disastrous status quo that we have on immigration in America today," insisted that Democrats could have gotten the bill passed had they allowed Republicans to vote on more amendments. The effort may have collapsed, in part, because of a dispute over as few as two GOP amendments. Reid said that he offered Republicans up to eight more amendments, but Republicans apparently wanted 10 or 12.

Although McConnell acknowledged that some Republicans would never vote for the bill, he rebuked Reid for not trying harder to win over more moderate Republicans. "The key is the rest of us," McConnell said. "We could have finished this bill in a couple of more days."

McConnell added that he hoped Reid would bring the bill up again soon. "I wouldn't wait a whole long time to do it," he warned.

The chances that Congress could pass such controversial legislation are widely seen as diminishing as the presidential election approaches. Such prospects are also considered unlikely in the first year of a president's term.

Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said the bill could be taken up again once the Senate has finished dealing with energy legislation. "If people are hardheaded enough, determined enough, it could come up as soon as next week," he said, but he put the chances at "no more than 50-50, maybe less."

At the heart of the 789-page comprehensive bill is a political trade-off between Democratic and Republican negotiators, who proudly touted it as a "grand bargain" that would allow both sides to claim significant victories.

Democrats who helped assemble the bill included a provision that would give most of the nation's illegal immigrants, estimated at 12 million or more, a way to achieve legal status by passing background checks, paying fines and fees, and eventually proving English proficiency.

Republican negotiators championed one of the bill's most significant features, a shift in the criteria for future immigration from a family-based system to a point system that would put greater emphasis on skills and education. And they ensured that the bill's temporary-worker program would not allow participants to become legal permanent residents. The bill also included a worker program for the agriculture industry.

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