US immigration reform down – but not out, supporters say

After failed vote, Senate leaders leave the door open for future moves to address critics' concerns.

After three months of intense negotiation, the Senate's "grand bargain" on immigration fell 15 votes short on a key vote, but backers say it's still possible to revive a deal.

Key negotiators on the immigration bill said Friday they were encouraged by what party leaders had said after the vote. Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, the leading Democratic negotiator, compared Thursday's 45-50 defeat to the 1967 Boston Red Sox team, which was behind for a good part of the season but "came roaring back and grabbed victory out of the jaws of defeat."

"We know now what has to be done in order to get leadership to move ahead. Last night, that was a lot less clear," he said.

Republicans for their part acknowledged that they would have to cut back some 300 GOP amendments to a more manageable number to get the compromise bill, known as the grand bargain, through.

"We should be able to get it down to about a dozen amendments," says Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, the lead GOP negotiator. "Once we get that list, available and ready for consideration, the bill can be quickly taken up."

The proposed immigration reform still faces an uphill climb, in part because it tries to balance so many complex elements. It includes new border-security measures, a merit-based system for issuing green cards that emphasizes education and value to the economy over family reunification, a temporary guest-worker program, and a path to legal status for some 12 million illegal immigrants now in the United States.

Critics of the bill – on the conservative wing of the Republican Party and both wings of the Democratic Party – say that sponsors still have to come to terms with objections to the substance of the bill, ranging from how the enforcement system will work to whether the bill will adequately protect American workers from unfair competition.

It wasn't a single "poison pill" amendment that killed this week's deal, as many supporters had feared. After two weeks of floor debate, leaders on both sides of the aisle couldn't agree on how to manage the growing volume of objections to the vast and complex bill.

Republicans wanted these concerns answered in floor votes on dozens of amendments ranging from the terms of enforcement to the tax and legal liability of millions of people who have lived and worked in the shadows. Democrats said that more votes weren't needed and would only further undermine support for the bill.

But votes that tested the strength of specific concerns crossed party lines. For example, 11 Democrats backed an amendment by conservative Sen. Tom Coburn (R) of Oklahoma that would have required the completion of a 700-mile border security fence before a new guest-worker program could begin. The measure failed 43-54. Also, 12 Democrats backed an amendment by Sen. David Vitter (R) of Louisiana that required federal officials to keep track of visitors who overstay their visas. That measure failed by a vote of 48-49.

Senators on both sides of the aisle chafed at the view that the "grand bargainers" could decide which amendments were deal-breakers. "Should 12 individuals in isolation make decisions for 100 senators representing 300 million people? No," said Sen. Robert Menendez (D) of New Jersey.

The amendment of most concern was sponsored by Sen. Byron Dorgan (D) of North Dakota. It required the Senate to sunset the guest-worker program after five years, in order to assess whether it was, in fact, a temporary program or a threat to US workers. The measure won a surprise victory late Wednesday night on a 59-48 vote, with 10 Republicans and 38 Democrats voting in favor. Senators backing the bill said that it was a deal-buster, but that it could have been fixed before the bill become law.

"This is a killer amendment? That after five years you take a look and see how the program is faring?" asked Majority leader Harry Reid, who voted to back Senator Dorgan's amendment.

The decisive vote on whether to end debate on the bill did not fall out on party lines either. In the end, seven Republicans split with their leadership and voted with most Democrats to end debate – setting a timetable for a final vote on the bill. But 11 Democrats and one independent, representing both the liberal and conservative wings of the Democratic Party, voted with most Republicans to oppose an end to debate, a move that derailed the bill. The 45-50 vote fell short of the 60 votes needed to end debate on a bill.

For senators lingering on and off the floor of the Senate after Thursday night's failed vote, there was plenty of blame to go around.

Senator Reid blamed "small groups" of Republicans for obstructing immigration reform. "There is a lot of support for this bill on the outside. The problem was on the inside of the Senate Chamber," he said.

Republican leader Mitch McConnell said that Democrats were trying to jam the minority by forcing a premature end to debate. He said that Republicans needed enough votes on their own amendments to meet a "threshold of acceptability."

"I think we are within a few days of getting to the end of what many would applaud as an important bipartisan accomplishment of this Congress," he said in a floor statement after the vote.

But both leaders said they would continue to work on the bill, which could be revived at any time.

Both sides also acknowledge that President Bush will also need to get more personally involved in reviving consideration on the bill. He is expected to meet with Senate Republicans at a caucus luncheon on Tuesday. Meanwhile, Bush administration officials and GOP senators set up a conference call to discuss next moves on the bill this Friday.

"Harry Reid says that this is the Bush [immigration] proposal, and Harry Reid is right," said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina. "President Bush has been intimately involved with the negotiations."

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