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Two controversial GOP immigration amendments rejected by Senate panel

Several Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee joined with Democrats Tuesday to reject two controversial GOP amendments that would have upended a bipartisan proposal to overhaul the nation's immigration laws by requiring stricter border enforcement and visa standards.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.). (Susan Walsh/AP)

The two amendments by Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) would have required the Department of Homeland Security to establish a biometric identification system to track people entering and exiting the country at the nation's airports, seaports and border crossings and would have limited the number of legal immigrants who could enter the country with worker visas.

Some Democrats said they support establishing a biometric tracking system, but agreed with party colleagues that the cost of implementing the system -- which experts say would cost several billion dollars -- plus the amount of time needed to establish the system would slow the implementation of immigration reforms.

The bipartisan 9/11 Commission called for establishing a biometric tracking system to account for potential terrorists entering or leaving the United States. Supportive Republicans noted that if the Walt Disney Company uses biometric tracking to ensure the validity of ticket holders at the company's two theme parks in Florida and California, then so can the U.S. government. But Democrats said it would be difficult and prohibitively expensive to operate a biometric system at 329 ports of entry.

"It’s a more daunting task than it is at Disney World or Disneyland," said Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), a member of the bipartisan "Gang of Eight" senators working on overhauling the nation's immigration laws.

Sessions, a former federal prosecutor, insisted however that a biometric system would best track people entering and leaving the country. "I personally think from my experience from law enforcement that the fingerprint system should be the basic system of law enforcement."

He also berated the Gang of Eight for rejecting any fundamental changes to the group's proposals, saying that "They don't accept anything that deals with the integrity of the bill."

Ultimately, the committee rejected Sessions's proposal by a vote of 12 to 6. Two Republican members of the Gang of Eight who sit on the committee, Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), joined with Democrats to oppose the amendment.

Later, 17 members of the committee overwhelmingly rejected a Sessions amendment to limit the number of legal immigrants that could enter the country on worker visas. Only Sessions voted for the proposal.

Graham said he didn't like that Sessions' proposal targeted lower-skilled immigrant workers.

"I would suggest that the strength of this country is not the degree one holds, but the character one possesses," Graham said.

Notably, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who is opposed to the immigration bill's provisions regarding border security and enforcement, said that he opposed Sessions's amendment because "legal immigration is a fundamental pillar of our country."

The committee also approved an amendment by Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) that would require companies to post more information online about job positions before they can hire an applicant using an H-1B worker visa. Employers would need to provide the Labor Department with a job title and description, the location of the job and the name and address of the employer.

The panel also approved an amendment by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) to limit the flight paths of unmanned aerial drones used by the U.S. Border Patrol to no more than three miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border in the San Diego region, and a proposal by Sen. Christopher Coons (D-Del.) that limits when and how U.S. authorities can repatriate illegal immigrants to ensure the safety of people being returned to their home countries.

Still up for consideration Tuesday is a proposal aimed at tightening the monitoring of foreign students in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings.

The measure, offered by Grassley, would require the Department of Homeland Security to transfer all student visa information to border control agents at ports of entry. Aides on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is overseeing the amendment process, said the proposal was inspired by reports that alleged accomplices of the accused Boston bombers were living in the country on expired student visas.

David Nakamura contributed to this report.

Ed O’Keefe is covering the 2016 presidential campaign, with a focus on Jeb Bush and other Republican candidates. He's covered presidential and congressional politics since 2008. Off the trail, he's covered Capitol Hill, federal agencies and the federal workforce, and spent a brief time covering the war in Iraq.

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