Senate Revisits Immigration Bill

By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Legislation to overhaul the nation's immigration laws cleared a key hurdle yesterday when the Senate voted 64 to 35 to take up the measure again after a nearly three-week break. But opponents of the proposal insisted they would scuttle it by week's end.

The procedural vote squeezed past the 60-vote threshold needed to bring the bill back for debate, but even advocates said that was the easy part. The immigration bill must run a gantlet of 26 politically charged amendments and clear another 60-vote hurdle tomorrow to cut off a filibuster before a final vote Friday.

The bill's most ardent opponents forced the Senate clerk last night to read all 26 of those amendments in their entirety as a delaying tactic. "This is going to begin some very heavy trench warfare," Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said. "It's going to be like World War I."

Still, Bush administration officials who have championed the proposal insisted that a bill once left for dead was now on its way toward passage.

"We are confident in Senate passage, because we look at the alternative, and the alternative is nothing," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said.

"In the end, logic, common sense and wisdom will prevail," added Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez, in a shot against detractors, who continue to say the immigration bill's border security provisions are unworkable and its path to citizenship for 12 million illegal immigrants amounts to "amnesty" for lawbreakers.

Privately, White House officials were less boastful. Even if it clears the Senate, the bill faces a wall of GOP opposition in the House. House Republicans took the unusual step in a closed-door conference meeting yesterday of debating a resolution opposing the Senate bill, even before the Senate completed action on it. House Republicans voted 114 to 23 to oppose the Senate bill, and GOP leadership aides said that not even those opposed would necessarily support similar legislation -- that they opposed taking a vote at all.

That low number is significant, suggested Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (Fla.), one of the few outspoken Republicans who back a comprehensive immigration overhaul. It is well short of the 70 Republicans that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has said she needs to pass a bill.

Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) called the gathering an obvious and unseemly attempt to influence the Senate vote a few hours later. "I think it demeans us in the House to comment on a Senate bill that's still under consideration," he said.

But House GOP leaders denied that. House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said he informed the White House of the effort last night. "I won't say they were happy about it," he said, but added, "You can't throttle back debate in the House or debate in the conference."

The Senate's vote a few hours later struck a few ominous notes. Among the 35 senators opposing taking up the bill for debate again were nine Democrats and a Democratic-leaning independent, Sen. Bernard Sanders (Vt.), who are likely to oppose final passage. That number could grow as the bipartisan coalition that drafted the compromise bill tilts it toward conservative positions on some issues to try to garner more Republican votes.

The senators in the "grand bargain" spent much of the afternoon finalizing a get-tough amendment that would put up $4.4 billion for border security, establish a tracking system to watch participants in the bill's new guest-worker programs, and, perhaps most significant, force illegal immigrants to leave the country temporarily to get the "Z visas" that would allow them to live and work legally in the United States. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), one of three Democratic authors of the bill, expressed misgivings over that last provision yesterday, but Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), its author and another key architect of the bill, said he would not vote for final passage without it.

"There will be some who think this is too tough," he said. "But there are many who believe we won't ever do anything to change the problem. I'm trying to talk to those who don't believe that this bill corrects the mistakes of the past, and to those who think we're too tough -- it's all perspective and application."

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