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Immigration bill on the ropes

Times Staff Writers

The Senate bill to revamp the nation’s immigration laws stalled Thursday night after Democrats and Republicans deadlocked over how many more amendments to debate, dealing a major setback to President Bush and the unusual bipartisan team that crafted the complex legislation.

Lawmakers late Thursday rejected an attempt to move toward a final vote on the bill, a defeat that jeopardizes prospects for a comprehensive overhaul of immigration laws this year -- and possibly for several years -- even as public anger and anxiety about the issue has reached a roiling pitch.

Opponents of the bill, who had become increasingly assertive during the two weeks of debate, hailed its apparent failure as a victory for “sanity,” but supporters insisted that they would try to revive the legislation over the next several weeks.

“It makes no sense to fold our tent, and I certainly don’t intend to,” said the lead Democratic negotiator, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts. “I believe we’re well within reach of a realistic solution, and I believe we have the will to find it. We can’t afford not to. Failure is not an option.”

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The 50-45 vote, 15 votes short of the 60 needed to end debate, came after a day of tense backroom negotiations between Democrats and Republicans. It followed an effort earlier in the day to end debate that failed 63 to 33. Both sides took to the Senate floor after the second vote to blame the stubbornness of the other side for the bill’s apparent failure.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) immediately announced that he would pull the bill from consideration and move on to energy legislation. But he left open the possibility that lawmakers could still reach a decision on immigration legislation and called on Bush to do more to help.

“Even though I’m disappointed, I look forward to passing this bill,” Reid said after the vote. “There are ways we can do this. There’s lots of support for this bill on the outside; the problem was on the inside of this chamber.

“We are committed to immigration reform. We believe the country needs it,” Reid said. “Let’s have President Bush work with us on this.”

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Bush, who has chastised Republican critics for denouncing the bill as “amnesty” for illegal immigrants, was at an international summit in Germany on Thursday when the legislation faced its most crucial challenges.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), citing “the disastrous status quo that we have on immigration in America today,” insisted that Democrats could have gotten the bill passed had they allowed Republicans to vote on more amendments. The effort may have collapsed, in part, because of a dispute over as few as two GOP amendments. Reid said that he offered Republicans up to eight more amendments, but Republicans apparently wanted 10 or 12.

Although McConnell acknowledged that some Republicans would never vote for the bill, he rebuked Reid for not trying harder to win over more moderate Republicans. “The key is the rest of us,” McConnell said. “We could have finished this bill in a couple of more days.”

McConnell added that he hoped Reid would bring the bill up again soon. “I wouldn’t wait a whole long time to do it,” he warned.

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The chances that Congress could pass such controversial legislation are widely seen as diminishing as the presidential election approaches. Such prospects are also considered unlikely in the first year of a president’s term.

Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said the bill could be taken up again once the Senate has finished dealing with energy legislation. “If people are hardheaded enough, determined enough, it could come up as soon as next week,” he said, but he put the chances at “no more than 50-50, maybe less.”

At the heart of the 789-page comprehensive bill is a political trade-off between Democratic and Republican negotiators, who proudly touted it as a “grand bargain” that would allow both sides to claim significant victories.

Democrats who helped assemble the bill included a provision that would give most of the nation’s illegal immigrants, estimated at 12 million or more, a way to achieve legal status by passing background checks, paying fines and fees, and eventually proving English proficiency.

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Republican negotiators championed one of the bill’s most significant features, a shift in the criteria for future immigration from a family-based system to a point system that would put greater emphasis on skills and education. And they ensured that the bill’s temporary-worker program would not allow participants to become legal permanent residents. The bill also included a worker program for the agriculture industry.

Before these provisions could take effect, substantial improvements in border security and workplace enforcement would be required. To protect the southern border, the bill would add thousands of border agents, hundreds of miles of vehicle barriers and fence, and many more camera towers. Employers would have to use an electronic verification system to check a worker’s status and would face increased penalties for hiring illegally.

But opposition to the deal grew over the two weeks of debate. Conservatives branded the legalization plan “amnesty”; religious groups decried the weakened emphasis on family immigration; immigrant rights groups complained that temporary workers could never become citizens; and businesses were upset about the point system, which would end their ability to bring in specific employees with the exact skills they needed.

Even before Thursday’s votes, the bill was in trouble. The Senate has voted on 42 amendments, some that gave both Republicans and Democrats pause.

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An amendment passed early Thursday would end the bill’s temporary-worker program after five years, angering conservative supporters of the program who were already concerned that it had lost much of its usefulness when an earlier amendment halved its size to 200,000 workers.

The bill became more conservative with the amendments, making some Democrats increasingly uncomfortable. One amendment would make English the country’s “national language.” Another would give the Department of Homeland Security access to rejected legalization applications, which would allow them to use that information to round up illegal immigrants.

“There are parts of this bill I love and parts I hate,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), explaining his support for the bill. “I talk to my leaders back in Chicago who are most interested in this, and they say, ‘Don’t let the process die. We need this.’ And that’s my basic thinking.”

Conservatives who opposed the bill hailed its demise.

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Calling the bill’s defeat “a victory for sanity in our country,” Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) said: “They kept insisting it had to be the whole apple, and I just think the American people were choking on it.”

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), among the 11 Democrats and one independent who voted not to move forward with the bill, said she was troubled by the temporary-worker program, which she feared could exploit immigrants and depress the wages of Americans competing against them.

“This bill, as it currently stands, is unworkable and unfair,” Boxer said. “This bill needs to be clarified, simplified and rectified before I can support it.”

Some senators, both supporters and opponents, suggested the bill should be broken into pieces. “All inclusive is perhaps too much to tackle in this bill. Is comprehensive too much?” asked Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), a member of the coalition that wrote the legislation.

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“It’s dark day for me and a dark evening, because a lot of work went into this,” Feinstein said. “What we have now today in America is effectively amnesty because people know you can’t pick up and deport 12 million people ... so what develops is a subterranean fearful culture that never becomes part of the mainstream American culture.”

Almost all the Democrats who voted against cutting off debate were from conservative-leaning states such as Louisiana, Montana, New Mexico and Arkansas. Most voted late in the roll call, after it had become apparent that the bid to move to a final vote would fail and their votes would not change the outcome.

Seven Republicans voted to support the bill.

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said that until the Senate stalemate was broken, the House would not bring up the immigration bill. “They will not move without something moving here,” he said.

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A senior House Democratic strategist said the party’s leaders saw no reason to take up the controversial measure and expose their rank and file to political risk if the bill fizzled in the Senate.

Reaction from religious groups, business organizations and immigrant rights advocates was swift. Cecilia Munoz of the National Council of La Raza, a Latino advocacy group, said it was “utterly unacceptable for the Senate to fail to address the issue of immigration reform. The country demands and deserves a solution for our broken immigration system.”

Laura Reiff of the Business Immigration Group at law firm Greenberg Traurig said, “For business it means we don’t get the workers we need in the workforce to grow the economy.”

And Bishop Gerald R. Barnes of the San Bernardino Roman Catholic diocese warned that without federal legislation, state and local governments would probably fill the void with their own laws. “By failing to move forward, our federal officials are abdicating their responsibility,” he said.

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At least two senators flew in from other cities for the vote, Sens. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.). Both voted to cut off debate.

After the vote, McCain, who drew harsh criticism for his support of the bill from fellow GOP presidential candidates at a debate Tuesday, repeatedly refused to comment to reporters.

The bill’s setback coincided with a new poll that showed that most Americans supported one of the legislation’s most important goals -- legalizing illegal immigrants -- but that the bill itself drew a mostly negative reaction.

Of the respondents who knew about the bill, a third supported it and 41% opposed it, according to a poll taken last week by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. But the poll also found that 63% supported allowing illegal immigrants to become citizens if they passed background checks, paid fines and had jobs.

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nicole.gaouette@latimes.com

maura.reynolds@latimes.com

Times staff writer Janet Hook contributed to this report.

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