By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 15, 2007
Senate leaders, under pressure from pro-immigration groups and facing a determined push by President Bush, agreed last night to bring a controversial overhaul of the nation's immigration laws back to the Senate floor as early as next week.
The bipartisan negotiators working on the immigration bill whittled hundreds of amendments down to a package of 11 amendments from Republicans and another 11 from Democrats and then presented their compromise to Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.). Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott (Miss.) indicated earlier that he could produce enough GOP votes to clear the 60-vote threshold to get the bill back to the floor and push it to a final vote.
With Reid's demands satisfied, he and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) issued a terse statement: "We met this evening with several of the Senators involved in the immigration bill negotiations. Based on that discussion, the immigration bill will return to the Senate floor."
Members of both parties cautioned that passage is still anything but certain.
"I'm sure senators on both sides of the aisle are being pounded by these talk-radio people who don't even know what's in the bill," Lott said. He added that the "leadership will have to be prepared to do what needs to be done."
The breakthrough was a clear victory for Bush, whose visit to Capitol Hill on Tuesday appeared to come too late to resurrect a measure that had been pulled from the Senate floor five days earlier.
"We are encouraged by the announcement from Senate leaders that comprehensive immigration reform will be brought back up for consideration," said White House spokesman Scott Stanzel. "We look forward to working with senators as the process moves forward."
Administration officials worked hard to mobilize business groups and immigrant rights organizations to counter a furious response from the bill's opponents.
Spanish-language radio personality Eddie "Piolin" Sotelo delivered to the Senate yesterday more than 1 million letters from U.S. citizens and legal residents supporting the measure, and Roman Catholic leaders launched a push to revive the bill.
For his part, Bush sought to reassure conservatives that the controversial bill would provide resources for more effective border control, endorsing a new plan to devote $4.4 billion in fees raised by the legislation to bolstering border surveillance and preventing illegal immigrants from being hired in workplaces.
"We're going to show the American people that the promises in this bill will be kept," Bush told members of the Associated Builders and Contractors who gathered for a conference downtown.
By endorsing the plan, proposed by Sens. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), the president was sending another signal to conservatives to rethink their opposition to the comprehensive immigration measure.
"That $4 billion is a tremendous help," said Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.), one of the bill's negotiators and the chairman of the Republican National Committee. "It gives people confidence that security really will be there."
Negotiations on the bill stretched over five months, and the floor debate has already consumed two weeks of a packed Senate schedule. The bill would link new border controls and a crackdown on employers who hire illegal immigrants with provisions to grant legal status to the 12 million illegal immigrants already in the country, to clear the backlog of hundreds of thousands of immigration applications, and to shift the emphasis of future immigration from family ties to job skills and higher education levels.
Reid has absorbed withering criticism for his decision to yank the bill from the floor last week after a vote to cut off debate received just 45 votes, well short of the 60 needed to move to a vote on final passage. But he said he could not continue to push the legislation if opponents persisted in offering amendment after amendment to, in effect, filibuster the bill.
With a finite list of amendments in hand, Reid promised last night to bring the bill back after the Senate completes work on an energy bill, probably by next Thursday.
Senate opponents showed no sign of acquiescing to the deal. "I appreciate the effort to fund border security, but there's simply no reason why we should be forced to tie amnesty to it," Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) said of the president's pledge.
Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), a bill negotiator who has edged away from it, said he, too, wants to "decouple" funding for border security from the broader issues of immigration, saying Bush should send up a separate emergency spending bill before the full package comes back to the floor.
But the bill's Republican supporters in the Senate said they are confident that they will win final passage. The measure, however, still has a steep road ahead. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has said she is committed to move on an immigration plan next month if the Senate bill passes. But she has made it clear that Bush would have to deliver at least 70 GOP votes to win passage for legislation that is sure to split the Democratic caucus.
House Republicans showed no sign of tempering their opposition yesterday, even after senators backed the immediate infusion of funds for border security.
"Only in Washington would people believe that throwing money at the problem is going to solve it," said Rep. Brian P. Bilbray (R-Calif.), who is leading the opposition. "This is a blatant attempt by senators to extort votes so they can fast-track an amnesty plan."
Staff writer Michael Abramowitz contributed to this report.