By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 22, 2007
The Senate voted last night to move forward on an overhaul of immigration laws, but even proponents of the delicate compromise proposal conceded that the furor over the deal was surpassing their expectations and endangering the plan.
The 69 to 23 vote masked deep troubles from the right flank of the Senate, as well as from the left. Opponents of even conducting a debate on the measure included some unexpected voices, such as freshman Sens. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Bernard Sanders, an independent liberal from Vermont. Several conservatives -- and some liberals -- made it clear that they cast a vote to proceed only in order to fundamentally change the proposed legislation in the coming days.
With dozens of amendments planned, traps being laid by opponents could upset the fragile coalition that drafted the measure. What's more, Senate leaders gave up hope last night that they could pass the bill this week, ensuring it will be left hanging over a week-long Memorial Day recess. That will allow the opposition to gather strength before a final vote can be scheduled next month.
"Our plan is a compromise. It involved give-and-take in the best traditions of the United States Senate. For each of us who crafted it, there are elements that we strongly support and elements we believe could be improved. No one believes this is a perfect bill," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.), the deal's chief Democratic architect. "The world is watching to see how we respond to the current crisis. Let's not disappoint them."
Senate leadership aides said yesterday that the proposal could probably muster the support of about 30 Republicans and 30 Democrats -- just enough to beat a filibuster, which was all but promised yesterday by conservatives.
The bill would grant legal status to virtually all the estimated 12 million undocumented workers in the country, create a temporary-worker program, tighten border controls, crack down on employers who hire illegal immigrants, and create a point system for future immigration to de-emphasize family ties in favor of educational attainment and work skills.
About a dozen senators who drafted the compromise are to meet every day this week to review amendments.
"The grand bargainers will hold together," ventured Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), a lead negotiator, "but there are not 51 of us."
Supporters had expected opposition from both ends of the political spectrum. But they conceded they were taken aback by the furious response over the weekend, especially from conservatives, who declared that the legislation is nothing short of amnesty for lawbreakers.
"This bill is compromising to the country's economy, national security and very foundation of a democracy rooted in the rule of law," said Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.).
Worse still, business groups expected to provide muscle to push the bill have instead voiced opposition. Business groups have called the temporary-worker program impractical. They have also protested a provision that would force employers to verify the legal status of every worker in the country, and have said a point system for permanent-residence visas, or green cards, would deprive them of the ability to bring in foreign workers with distinct skills they need.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has signaled that any immigration bill clearing the chamber this summer is likely to look considerably different from a Senate bill designed to attract Republican votes.
Conservative opposition from think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation, talk-radio hosts and GOP presidential candidates has been echoed by more than a dozen Republicans and nearly half a dozen Democrats. Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), a pivotal swing vote, said he is determined to reshape the legislation to ensure that a crackdown on the border succeeds before additional job programs are extended to undocumented workers and future immigrants.
One of the first Republican amendments, by Sen. James M. Inhofe (Okla.), would seek to make English the official language of the United States.
An amendment by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) would impose a hefty surcharge on illegal immigrants granted legal status to help states pay for the medical and educational services such immigrants would claim. Another from Cornyn would allow federal law enforcement agents to use information from visa applications to investigate allegations of fraud in the legalization process.
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) said she wants any immigration legislation to require illegal immigrants to return to their home country to apply for legal status.
On the other side of the aisle, the biggest threats revolve around a temporary-worker program that would grant two-year work visas, renewable up to three times, as long as foreign workers leave the country between each two-year stint. Labor unions contend that the program would depress U.S. wages and create an underclass of abused foreign workers. Business groups say the structure of the program is unrealistic, since it guarantees instability in the labor supply.
Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), with the backing of Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), will move as soon as today to slash in half the number of temporary work visas, to 200,000 a year. Sens. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) will try to strike the program from the bill altogether, and they are likely to pick up support from the Senate's most liberal and most conservative members.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) promised to try to change the bill's provisions on the issuance of permanent residence status. Under the deal, the current green-card system reserves such visas almost exclusively for immigrants with family ties in the United States or an employer sponsor.
The new system would grant applicants points based in part on family ties but also on education, work skills and experience, and English-language proficiency. Leahy and Menendez would preserve the point system but grant more weight to applicants with family members in the United States.
Another provision in the compromise would give the Department of Homeland Security eight years to clear a backlog of 567,000 applicants who have been waiting since before May 2005 for family-unification green cards. Menendez will push to move to grant visas to an additional 800,000 applicants who applied between May 2005 and January 2007.