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Immigration bill clears a major Senate hurdle

Times Staff Writer

Supporters of a bipartisan immigration bill on Wednesday rebuffed one of the most serious challenges so far, defeating a measure that could have denied legalization to many illegal immigrants and moving the complicated legislation a step closer to passage in the Senate.

Senate Democratic leaders, fearing an erosion of support for the bill if debate drags on, are pushing for a final vote by the end of the week or early next week. The bill would then move to the House, where it is expected to face stiffer opposition.

“We’ve got one good chance to get this legislation passed,” said Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), a key supporter of the bill. “Now is the time.”

The defeated amendment, proposed by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), would have permanently barred many convicted felons -- including sex offenders, gang members and repeat drunk drivers -- from qualifying to become legal permanent residents.

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Supporters of the bill said, however, the amendment was written so loosely that it also would have barred those guilty of other felonies, such as violating deportation orders or using false identification documents. That, they said, would have applied to a huge number of illegal immigrants.

“We should not allow a path to legalization and citizenship for those who have openly defied our courts, lawful orders of our courts, and who have shown themselves as having no regard for the rule of law,” Cornyn argued from the Senate floor before the vote. “What kind of citizens can we expect [of] these individuals who have been ordered deported, who have had their day in court and who simply defied that court order by going on the lam and melting into the American landscape?”

But Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), the primary Democratic sponsor of the legislation, accused Cornyn of classifying “an array of common, garden-variety immigration offenses as crimes that would make them ineligible for the program.”

“The Cornyn amendment that says if you ... have been ordered out of the country by immigration authorities, but if you failed to leave or you came back, you’re ineligible,” Kennedy said on the Senate floor. “Cornyn says that if you have used false identification, you may be found inadmissible and may be deported. But in our broken system, the people that have wanted to work face the reality of where we are today.”

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Senators defeated the Cornyn amendment 51 to 46, with California’s Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer voting against it.

“We’re still on track,” Feinstein, a key member of the bipartisan group that drafted the proposal, said after the vote.

The chamber adopted by a 66-32 vote a measure proposed by Kennedy that included many of the same provisions against violent felons but allowed more discretion for judges in the case of immigration-related offenses. Both California senators supported the Kennedy version.

“What we are doing with this amendment is keeping the enforcement without killing the bill,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.).

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At the heart of the immigration proposal is an agreement reached by a bipartisan group of senators to allow most of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants already in the country to apply for legalization in return for building an immigration system that would give greater priority to education and economic need than family reunification.

The legislation splits both Democrats and Republicans, making the debate and amendment process more unpredictable than usual.

“The more you try to change it, the more you risk losing it,” Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), who supports the bill, said on the Senate floor. He pleaded with Republicans to limit their proposed amendments, and with Democrats to permit at least enough time for debate to give Republicans a sense that the deliberations have been fair.

To protect the bill’s central agreement, senators also defeated, on a procedural vote, an amendment that would have increased the number of visas available for family members now waiting for green cards in an effort to clear the backlog in applications.

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Kyl raised budgetary objections to the amendment, proposed by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), and 60 votes were needed to waive the objection. A vote on the waiver failed 53 to 44; Feinstein and Boxer both voted for it. A secondary amendment by Kyl that would permit more applications to be considered but would not increase the number of visas issued was passed on a party line vote of 51 to 45, with both California senators voting against it.

“This is a fig leaf for those who voted against” the last amendment, Menendez said, urging colleagues to defeat Kyl’s version. “It does nothing for family reunification.”

Another amendment, which passed 57 to 39, would waive the confidentiality of applications submitted by illegal immigrants who are denied legal status, making the information available to law enforcement.

Behind the scenes, party leaders and members of the bipartisan group of senators who negotiated the deal -- known as the “grand bargain” -- discussed an agreement over how much longer to debate and how many more amendments to consider.

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“The majority leader is controlling this debate. The train is moving down the track and very few amendments are being considered,” a leading opponent of the bill, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), said as he attempted to introduce more amendments.

Sessions told reporters that opponents want to continue the debate because the longer it goes on, the more support for the legislation slips away. “I think that has sort of been the case,” Sessions said. “I don’t know how many votes are changing ... [but senators] are not happy with the way things are going.”

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maura.reynolds@latimes.com

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