Drafted in secret, the once-derailed Senate immigration bill is making a comeback.
But because it is being redesigned with unusual restrictions on debate, the legislation is drawing protests from critics. Not only will the resulting bill ignore broad concerns of immigration hard-liners, it may not even pass.
"The process has been orchestrated by a handful of people behind closed doors, and they are paying a price for that," says Sen. John Thune (R) of South Dakota. "People are feeling shut out."
An early test for party leaders and the bipartisan group of senators who crafted the compromise could come as early as Friday, when the Senate is expected to vote on whether to reopen debate on the bill. Supporters of the bill need at least 60 votes.
The key criticism involves the unusual restrictions that supporters have put on amendments to the bill. As a condition for giving the bill a second chance, Senate majority leader Harry Reid persuaded Republicans to whittle down scores of proposed amendments to a dozen. Democrats will be allowed 10 to 12 amendments, too.
But a draft list of which amendments would be included, which was leaked to the press this week, did not include any from the bill's hard-core opponents.
Supporters are offering debate on amendments to a persuadable group of senators who opposed the bill on the last key vote on June 7. Many of them say they could vote for the revised bill, if their concerns are met.
These amendments range from adjusting the scope of new citizenship and guest-worker programs to beefing up border-security features of the bill and penalties for employers who consistently hire illegal workers.
Freshman Sen. James Webb (D) of Virginia is on the list to offer an amendment to limit the scope of the new Z-visa program, which gives a path to citizenship to at least 12 million undocumented immigrants. A previous amendment by Sen. David Vitter (R) of Louisiana to scrap the program failed by a vote of 29-66.
"People who have put down roots in a community, at a time when our immigration laws were not enforced, deserve a way forward. But to give legal status to people who just happened to be here in December is against most people's notion of fairness," says Senator Webb, who campaigned on this issue. If his amendment is adopted, "I will vote for the bill," he adds.
On the Republican side, Sen. Norm Coleman (R) of Minnesota, who also opposed the bill, will have another crack at his amendment to allow police to question people on their immigrant status, if they have probable cause. That amendment failed by a vote of 48-49 on May 24.
In a bid to attract more votes, Senator Coleman says he has narrowed its scope to police, not school teachers or other public officials – and expects the amendment to pass. "We can't gag police officers from asking people about immigration," he says. "Many folks think we are not credible about enforcement of our borders. Without public trust and confidence, we may get this bill through the Senate, but not further."
But many other Republicans say they have been shut out of a process. Sen. John Cornyn (R) of Texas, once a supporter of comprehensive immigration reform, filed 30 amendments to the bill, and narrowed them to five after Democrats pulled the bill. His amendments, which are not on the list, aim to make a complicated new system more workable, he says.
For example, the proposed law provides a 24-hour period for background checks for Z-visa applicants, at a time when similar background checks for Americans drag on for months and even years. "We know with great confidence that that can't be done, and the default is provisional legal status for 12 million foreign nationals," he says. "That's wrong."
"I object to the process where a group of senators behind closed doors determine which amendments get votes and which do not," he adds.
Even some Republicans who did make the list of those allowed amendments are concerned. The secrecy and rush to a final bill will undermine public confidence in the outcome, says Senator Thune, who is proposing triggers for probationary legal status in the Z-visa program.
Meanwhile, supporters of a new national policy on immigration, ranging from church groups to business groups, have also seen lists of possible amendments, and are rallying their members to pressure lawmakers to complete work on the bill, even at the expense of provisions they would have liked to see.
Some employer groups, for example, welcome an amendment by Sen. Charles Grassley (R) of Iowa, to remove the requirement that workers present a REAL ID (tamper-proof) driver's license when seeking employment. But they say it's more important to get a bill that reforms a broken system. "The chief negotiators have called the Grassley amendment a deal breaker. What I want is a bill, and if that kills it, it doesn't get me to a bill. We will address our concerns another way," says Bruce Josten, executive vice president for government affairs at the US Chamber of Commerce.
On the House side, Speaker Nancy Pelosi says President Bush will need to deliver 70 Republican votes for an immigration bill to get through the House.
That got harder this week, as Reps. Peter King of New York and Lamar Smith of Texas, the top Republicans on the Committee on Homeland Security and the Judiciary Committee, launched an alternative to the Senate immigration bill that calls on the administration to "substantially reduce illegal immigration and greatly improve border security" by rigorously enforcing existing laws.
"The immigration status quo is intolerable. Not because our immigration laws are broken, but because they are not vigorously enforced," said Representative Smith in a press briefing on Tuesday.
At a Monitor breakfast on Wednesday, Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, who helped negotiate the Senate deal, said that he is "optimistic that we will get a bill."
"The essence of compromise is the recognition that the way to achieve something good for most people is for everybody to recognize they can't insist on a 100 percent win. It's going to have to be a win for everybody," he says. The alternative, of doing nothing, is a "silent amnesty," he adds.