By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 8, 2007
A tenuous compromise to overhaul the nation's immigration laws collapsed last night when senators from both parties refused to cut off debate and move to a final vote, handing the unlikely alliance of Democratic leaders and President Bush a setback on a major domestic priority.
The defeat came after months of painstaking negotiations and weeks of debate as a 45 to 50 procedural vote fell well short of the 60 votes needed to break the filibuster. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) then pulled the bill from the floor, while holding out hope that the Senate could resurrect the measure within weeks.
"There's no reason to be upset. I think that we have to look toward passing this bill," Reid said after 9 p.m., even as he catalogued a long list of futile efforts at compromise. "It's something that needs to be done."
But he was quick to place responsibility for the defeat on Bush, who had made passage of the measure a top legislative goal. "The headlines are going to be, 'The President Fails Again,' " Reid said. "It's his bill."
With Bush out of the country this week, he left the lobbying on the bill to key aides, including Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez. They watched from Vice President Cheney's ceremonial office just off the Senate chamber last night as the bill stalled.
Thirty-seven Democrats, seven Republicans and independent Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.) voted to break the filibuster. Thirty-eight Republicans, 11 Democrats and independent Sen. Bernard Sanders (Vt.) voted against it. Maryland's two Democratic senators voted yes. Virginia's Republican senator, John W. Warner, and its Democratic senator, James Webb, voted no.
White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said that the issue is far from dead and that administration officials are taking heart from the fact that both Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) indicated they would bring the matter back up for consideration.
"The process has demonstrated that there is a strong bipartisan majority in the United States Senate that wants to see bipartisan, comprehensive reform," Stanzel said. "We will continue to work with members of the United States Senate to address concerns and ensure that we secure our borders, strengthen the interior enforcement, enact a temporary-worker program and address the millions of undocumented workers that are already here in this country."
Legislative advocates also declared the battle not over. "Hope is a powerful thing, and it will not be deterred," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.), the deal's chief Democratic negotiator. "The issue will not go away, and we will not give up the fight."
But Democratic leaders were quietly pessimistic. House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) said Bush could count on 175 to 180 Democrats to support a similar comprehensive immigration bill in the House, leaving the White House to deliver at least 40 Republicans in a body that has been far more polarized.
"If Bush could not get the votes in the Senate, what was he going to do in the House?" Emanuel asked.
The Senate measure would have coupled tighter border security and a crackdown on the hiring of illegal immigrants with generous new avenues for such immigrants to stay and work legally. But the bipartisan compromise suffered a fatal blow just after midnight yesterday when the Senate voted to end a new guest-worker program after five years.
That measure was backed by most Democrats, who, along with their trade union allies, have been concerned that a guest-worker program would depress wages and displace Americans from jobs. But four conservative Republicans who had opposed the amendment two weeks ago were pivotal, changing their positions to secure its passage by a single vote -- a move they knew would jeopardize a bill that they had turned firmly against.
"I've been trying to kill it since the beginning," said Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.).
"My preference is to stop it and start again," said Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who also switched his vote.
Democratic and Republican negotiators scrambled for the rest of the day to salvage the legislation, drafting lists of amendments to consider that would satisfy conservative opponents of the deal and trying to find a way to undo the guest-worker vote. But each time Reid presented an offer, DeMint and his allies rebuffed it. Their intransigence angered leaders from both parties.
"I've about had it," declared Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.). "I will not be a part of a protracted filibuster. We are not going to let this bill die by endless amendments."
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) made a last-ditch offer to try to persuade GOP conservatives to reduce their expansive list of amendments if Reid put off the vote to end debate, but Reid declined.
McConnell, Lott and even Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), the bill's chief GOP architect, voted to sustain the filibuster -- a measure of Republicans' frustration with what they saw as heavy-handed Democratic efforts to deprive them of a chance for votes on the floor.
Most of the GOP negotiators, including presidential hopeful John McCain (Ariz.), stuck with the deal and sided with the Democrats.
"The Democrats were wrong" to cut off debate so quickly, said Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), another negotiator, "but Republicans were wronger."
In the end, the passions that swept the country, especially among conservatives, after the deal was unveiled last month proved too hard to resist. DeMint said calls to his office were running 99 to 1 against the bill, especially from vociferous opponents of the legalization of immigrants who came here illegally.
"Our neighborhoods across our country have spoken loud and clear, and the United States Senate heard their concerns. This bill is dead," said Rep. Brian P. Bilbray (R-Calif.), a strong opponent of Bush's approach.
Democrats and their allies were never enamored with the deal, either, and the bill had grown more conservative before its defeat. The Senate adopted GOP amendments that would have forced illegal immigrants to disclose information on their legalization applications that originally was to be kept confidential.
Newly legalized workers would not have been eligible for the earned income-tax credit, and they could not have received Social Security benefits they had earned while working illegally. Under one amendment, English could have become the national language, nullifying most rights to government documents in other tongues.
"It's becoming increasingly difficult to support this bill," said Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), a staunch advocate of expanding immigrant rights, shortly before the final tally.
Staff writer Michael Abramowitz contributed to this report.