WASHINGTON — After months of emotional gridlock, US senators are pushing the pedal to the metal on the first overhaul of immigration policy in two decades.
The trouble is, no one is quite sure what's in it. The quickened pace in recent days has helped the Senate get to "yes" on the 614-page bill - a final vote is expected this week. And it's given senators a rare chance to actually legislate. But it's also produced several surprises that have caught members off guard.
What counted was maintaining a "fragile" coalition of senators committed to passing comprehensive reform, including a path to citizenship for many of the millions already in the country illegally. While those following the action on C-SPAN saw frequent lulls, the work behind the scenes to hold that core was unrelenting.
Keeping abreast of the bill's changes often overwhelmed members. The final hours of the Judiciary Committee's March 27 markup got so rushed that, at one point, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California asked: "Excuse me, but did we just vote to raise or lower the number of H-1B visas?" No one knew.
In the end, the Senate raised the number of visas for high-tech workers from 65,000 to 115,000 a year. But with an automatic 20 percent escalator clause in the bill that could mean an additional 3 million foreigners will compete with American workers for high-tech jobs in the US during the next 10 years.
"To do a bill like this on a forced march, it wasn't ready to come out," said Senator Feinstein, after joining 72 other senators to vote to end debate on the bill Wednesday. "I am very pro-high tech, but these are prize jobs in our economy. They really should be evaluated every year."
It's one of the many possibly unintended consequences in a bill that could have a vast impact on America's economy and society.
"This has been the most satisfying week I've had since I've been here," said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina, in comments off the Senate floor on Tuesday. "There were unusual coalitions being formed and a lot of give and take on the floor. Our coalition is stronger than it was a week ago, and we've been tested by fire."
Indeed, the coalition had to face down a string of so-called poison pill amendments intended to block a path to citizenship for those in the worker program.
Last Thursday, for instance, the coalition nearly dissolved over a bid to bar illegal immigrants currently in the country from claiming Social Security credit for the years they worked with forged documents. The amendment, sponsored by Sen. John Ensign (R) of Nevada, took the bill's core supporters by surprise, because it opened a new window on the criticism that the bill amounted to amnesty - a charge its supporters have denied. "Does this bill punish the people who stole an American citizen's identity? No, it does not. It rewards them," said Senator Ensign.
The vote count was 49-49, when Sen. Mark Pryor (D) of Arkansas was walking up the steps toward the Senate floor. "Hurry! We need your vote!" cried a Democratic staffer, who had been tracking the vote no one expected would be so close. With Senator Pryor's vote, the amendment was defeated.
"A lot of us took tough votes where we would have liked to vote the other way, but we didn't, because we wanted to hold the coalition together," said Senator Graham, who voted with 10 other Republicans against the amendment.
On many key votes in the last two weeks, the majority of Senate Republicans were not on the winning side. These included votes on amendments by Sens. Jon Kyl (R) of Arizona and David Vitter (R) of Louisiana that would have ensured that the guest worker program did not include a path to eventual citizenship. Had the amendment passed, supporters say that bipartisan support for the entire bill would have crumbled.
"[Republicans] have the White House, the Senate, and the House. If we can't solve the immigration problem because it's too hard for us, people are going to turn to the other party," said Graham.
At the same time, the debate often produced unexpected alliances. Populists on the right and left found themselves in losing positions on the defense of American jobs from a surge in competition from cheaper labor.
In a key vote last week, Sens. Byron Dorgan (D) of North Dakota and Jeff Sessions (R) of Alabama - typically bookends on any vote on social policy - found themselves on the same losing side of a 69-28 vote to limit eligibility for the bill's guest-worker program to protect American jobs. "What on earth are we thinking? Can't there be some modicum of discussion about the effect on American workers?" said Senator Dorgan, introducing his amendment last week.
In support of that amendment, Senator Sessions introduced a new report by the Heritage Foundation that claimed that the Senate bill would allow 100 million new legal immigrants into the country over the next 20 years. He called for a demographic impact statement on the impact of the bill.
"There's been no discussion of the fiscal costs of amnesty or the plight of American workers in the Senate debate," said Steven Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies, which supports limits on immigration.
Asked whether the Senate was "flying blind" on the demographic impact of this bill, Sen. John Cornyn (R) of Texas said: "We're not entirely blind."