Senate Democrats defeat Republican border amendments, set up war funds' passage

By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 27, 2010; 4:11 PM

Senate Democrats defeated a string of Republican amendments Thursday designed to tighten security on the Mexican border, setting up final passage of a nearly $60 billion spending bill that will fund President Obama's troop surge into Afghanistan.

With 69 votes of support, the Senate cut off debate on the overall legislation. More than half the money in the bill will fund the infusion of 30,000 troops into Afghanistan, and $5 billion will go toward a disaster relief fund. A final vote on the legislation could come Thursday evening.

Most lawmakers support the war funds. The most heated political issue in the debate has been Mexican border security after GOP complaints about mounting violence related to the smuggling of illegal immigrants, drugs and weapons. Democrats, who favor a new security proposal from Obama, turned back each Republican amendment, including an effort by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to put 6,000 more security troops on the border.

The McCain measure, which needed 60 votes for approval, fell short on a 51 to 46 vote. He attracted the support of 12 Democrats, including several up for re-election in November: Sens. Michael Bennet (Colo.), Barbara Boxer (Calif.) and Blanche Lincoln (Ark.).

Obama's former presidential rival said that his state -- which enacted the nation's toughest law against illegal immigrants and set off a renewed national debate on the issue -- would require 3,000 of the security forces.

Sensing the shifting political ground, Obama proposed a plan Tuesday that would increase funding by $500 million and temporarily send 1,200 members of the National Guard to the border to help shore up the Border Patrol. Republicans rejected Obama's effort as insufficient to deal with something they say is a national crisis.

"While it's important to have additional resources there, even on a temporary basis, even on a limited basis, there's a whole lot more that we need to do. We need permanent solutions, not temporary solutions," Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.), a member of GOP leadership and co-sponsor of McCain's amendment, told reporters Wednesday.

Most Democrats rejected the GOP offer of 6,000 more troops as unnecessary given the latest Obama proposal. "It's sort of throwing an enormous amount of money at the problem that is not as carefully thought out, not as targeted and as effective, quite frankly, as President Obama's plan," Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said moments before the vote.

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the chamber's lone Latino senator, criticized the McCain plan as "militarizing the border" and the "definition of insanity" because it continued the previous efforts at building up a troop presence when a more compehensive solution is needed for immigration problems.

Democrats then also withstood a pair of other GOP border-security amendments, including Cornyn's effort to quadruple Obama's new border proposal with $2 billion in funding. Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) proposed increased funding for a Justice Department program dealing with illegal immigration.

The Kyl and Cornyn amendments each received 54 votes, including 13 Democrats for each. The vulnerable Democrats voted with Republicans on those amendments as well, a potential sign of how some lawmakers up for reelection this fall feel a need to push for enhanced border security as a precondition to broader immigration reform.

"If they are strong on the border, it allows them to do a comprehensive bill," said Menendez, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Feelings toward Obama remained publicly raw after his Tuesday visit to the Senate Republican Conference, a 75-minute, closed-door huddle that provoked agitated Republicans to complain to reporters afterward about the president's efforts at bipartisanship. In particular, McCain made note Wednesday during a speech on the Senate floor, that Obama's aides announced his new border plan 30 minutes after he left the GOP meeting and yet did not tell the senators what he was about to do.

"You've got to laugh, in the spirit of bipartisanship," McCain said.

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