Immigration issue back with senators - Critics of bill split on how vote will go
By Karoun Demirjian
Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune
Published June 26, 2007
WASHINGTON -- The beleaguered immigration bill makes a much-anticipated return to the Senate floor Tuesday, with some senators saying that a crucial procedural vote will signal whether the legislation will be defeated or eventually clear the Senate.
If Tuesday's showdown vote -- on a motion to officially revive the bill -- fails to procure the 60 votes necessary to pass, it will likely be the end of the road for comprehensive immigration reform this year. But if the vote passes, senators are predicting -- some quite grudgingly -- that it will herald Senate passage of the measure by week's end. The bill then would go to the House for more debate.
The complicated measure, among other things, aims to improve border security, introduce employee verification procedures to make sure workers are in the U.S. legally and put an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants already in the country on a pathway to citizenship.
The bill's opponents are forecasting its demise, claiming a steady erosion of support from senators and the American public over the past few weeks. But some of the legislation's biggest opponents did not seem confident Monday that they would be able to prevent the bill from moving forward.
"We do still have a shot to stop it," said Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), "but it's only going to be if the American people raise the level of their voices in the next 24 hours."
Grass-roots appeals have been a key factor for several senators, whose offices have been inundated with phone calls from constituents, most calling on their lawmakers to abandon the bill.
But President Bush and several key lobbyists were also working the phones this weekend, contacting undecided senators and urging them to back the bill through the procedural motions to expedite consideration of the measure.
The immigration bill was left for dead three weeks ago, when several Republicans and a group of about a dozen staunchly pro-labor Democrats voted down three motions to proceed, arguing that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) had not given senators enough time to present amendments.
After days of negotiations, Reid, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and several of the original architects of the compromise legislation agreed to a limited list of about two dozen additional amendments, split between Republicans and Democrats, to be brought up when debate resumed.
That list includes several sweeping measures, such as an amendment proposed by Sens. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) to close several "loopholes" in the legislation, among them replacing the 24-hour time limit for criminal background checks of immigrant visa applicants with no time restriction and permanently barring from the U.S. those who have been deported after they overstayed their visas.
The amendment is being presented as a comprehensive measure to placate the concerns of Republicans, who see the bill as too weak on enforcement. Already, several one-time supporters of the legislation, including Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Georgia Republican Sens. Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss, have announced they will not support procedural motions to ease passage of the bill.
Several other amendments are expected to be lightning rods for controversy, such as a proposal by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) to require that all work-eligible adult illegal immigrants return to their home countries before applying for a visa to legalize their status in the U.S.
A recent proposal by Sens. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.) to phase out parts that allow for information sharing between the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Homeland Security, and lift some employer sanctions for small-business owners that hire illegal immigrants, is also likely to face opposition, as are motions presented by Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) to help immigrant families seeking reunification.
Reid may allow votes on some of the more contentious amendments before moving to the showdown vote. If the Senate then decides to push ahead toward potential passage, Reid could decide to package the remaining amendments for a single vote in an arcane tactic known as a "clay pigeon," in order to prevent senators from introducing still more amendments. It would be only the third time the practice has been used in Senate history.
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If the immigration bill survives an expected procedural vote Tuesday, it will likely face a final Senate vote by late Friday before Congress leaves for a 4th of July holiday recess.
If the bill passes the Senate, it will go to the House, where prospects are quite uncertain. If it passes the House, the measure ultimately would be settled by a House-Senate conference committee.
Defeat in the Senate will likely guarantee that the issue is dead for this session of Congress -- and possibly for years, because lawmakers may believe it is too difficult an issue to tackle in 2008, which is an election year.
-- Tribune news services