Immigration Backers Defeat Challenges

The Associated Press
Thursday, May 24, 2007; 8:31 PM

WASHINGTON -- Proponents of a broad immigration measure beat back challenges Thursday that could have scuttled the bill, including efforts to phase out a temporary worker program and bar millions of unlawful immigrants from gaining legal status.

The Senate overwhelmingly endorsed the legalization program, a cornerstone of the bipartisan plan. It also would tighten border security and create a strict verification program to deny jobs to illegal immigrants.

By a 66-29 vote, senators rejected an amendment by conservative Sen. David Vitter, R-La., that would have removed the chance for the nation's estimated 12 million unlawful immigrants to live and work legally in the U.S. and eventually become citizens.

Earlier, in a 49-48 vote, the Senate rejected a proposal by Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., to end the temporary worker program after five years. By the same margin, senators voted down a proposal by Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., to allow government authorities to question someone about his immigration status if they had probable cause to suspect the person was in the U.S. illegally.

Those razor-thin votes showed the tenuous nature of the agreement between liberals and conservatives. Taken together, however, the defeat of the amendments showed the durability of the unlikely coalition that cut the deal and is fiercely lobbying other senators to preserve it.

"We are still together, and we're moving forward," said Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo.

Dorgan's amendment fell after Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., an architect of the bill, approached a wavering Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, in the Senate chamber and apparently persuaded him to switch his vote to "no."

Kennedy later said he had simply asked Akaka, "Can you help us out?"

The Bush administration, along with key congressional Democrats and Republicans, stepped up their efforts to sell the compromise as lawmakers braced for a public backlash at home.

"Many Americans are rightly skeptical about immigration reform," President Bush said in a Rose Garden news conference. "This bill provides the best chance to reform our immigration system and help us make certain we know who's in our country and where they are."

With Congress set to break for a weeklong Memorial Day recess, supporters and opponents of the compromise were scrambling to shape public perceptions of the immigration overhaul.

"Time is on our side because our product is better than those who want to do nothing," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. "Our product is better than empty rhetoric without a solution."

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