Talk of Resurrecting Immigration Bill Begins as Autopsy Goes On

By Shailagh Murray and Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, June 9, 2007

Supporters of immigration reform launched new talks to save their tattered bill yesterday, with the chief architects of the bipartisan compromise confident that they could resurrect it -- even as recriminations flew over its stunning collapse.

The rescue mission was dispatched moments after the vote was tallied Thursday night. Sixty votes were needed to end debate and pave the way for final passage, but only 45 senators voted yes. Republican and Democratic negotiators believe they can reach agreement by early next week on the official sticking point: which conservative amendments would be considered before final passage. The list must be short enough for time-conscious Democrats, yet substantive enough for Republicans demanding to be heard.

But a second act will come only if Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) allows the immigration issue to return to the floor. And exactly where Reid stands on the bill is one of the many mysteries left smoldering after Thursday's defeat.

Another is why the White House -- which regards immigration reform as key to reviving public support for President Bush -- offered backing that was too little, too late to keep the legislation moving. Though Bush could not control the debate's timing, and was in fact in Europe all week, administration officials did not show up on Capitol Hill until the bill was teetering on the brink.

Reid's motives have been a question mark from day one. Spokesman Jim Manley said his boss was prepared to support the immigration bill on final passage. But advocates had their doubts, given Reid's determination to limit debate, and the green light he gave to one of the bill's Democratic critics to twice offer an amendment to end a guest-worker program after five years. Supporters of the immigration bill viewed the measure, which passed on the second try, as a poison pill.

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) also drew criticism, both internally and from Democrats, for not quelling a conservative rebellion that ultimately delivered the death blow to the bill.

In the end, the determination of the bill's opponents simply proved more overwhelming than the will of its supporters to tackle such a difficult issue. Within policy circles, immigration reform is viewed as vital, addressing both the growing demand for workers and the social costs of an illegal underclass. The public also generally supports the idea. In last week's Washington Post-ABC News poll, a narrow majority of voters -- 52 percent -- said they supported allowing illegal immigrants to remain in the United States, as long as they are penalized, while 44 percent opposed the idea.

But the two most obvious remedies -- the guest-worker program and a path to citizenship for illegal residents -- drew opposition from two of the most powerful forces on the political landscape. On the Democratic side, labor unions protested the guest-worker program as a threat to American jobs. Many conservatives loathed the path-to-citizenship provision, deriding it as "amnesty" for lawbreakers.

An Optimistic Start

After a halting start this week, the Senate began churning through amendments at a rapid clip by Wednesday. The bill's architects believed they were on track for passage, certainly by early next week.

But Reid continued to insist that debate be cut off by Thursday, with a final vote on Friday night.

Then, late Wednesday, he allowed a second vote on sunsetting the guest-worker program. The measure, offered by Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.), had previously failed by a single vote, but Dorgan was given a second chance just before midnight. This time, with the help of conservatives opponents -- who were seeking to kill the bill by any means -- Dorgan obtained a one-vote win.

Reid bristled when he was asked why he gave Dorgan a second chance. "This is a killer amendment? After five years, you'll take a look at how the program is working? I can't fathom why this is a bad amendment," he said.

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