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Immigration bill careens toward vote

Times Staff Writers

Supporters of the Senate immigration bill rebuffed all but one of the most serious challenges to the controversial legislation Wednesday, setting up a crucial vote today that could decide its fate.

In a series of votes steadily interrupted by Republicans intent on stalling the proceedings, lawmakers rejected amendments aimed at gutting two key features of the bill: one that would allow illegal immigrants to seek legal status and another that would shift the basis for future immigration away from the current emphasis on family ties.

But the most ambitious attempt to overhaul immigration laws in two decades suffered a major setback late Wednesday when lawmakers approved an amendment that the bill’s backers and the administration said would undermine its effectiveness. The measure targeted the bill’s work-site enforcement section, removing all provisions that required so-called “Real ID” driver’s licenses -- tamper-proof, secure identification that does not yet exist, but that the bill’s backers consider essential to cracking down on illegal hiring.

Repeated objections from the bill’s Republican opponents meant that the Senate could not consider other amendments to toughen enforcement against illegal immigrants. The bill’s backers had hoped those amendments would bolster Republican support.

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Without that incentive, the bipartisan team behind the bill will have to persuade their skeptical colleagues to support the legislation in exchange for promises that enforcement measures can be added later. It was unclear whether members of the team would be able to round up the 60 votes needed to close the debate today and move to a final tally.

“I’m feeling challenged,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), a member of the bipartisan group. “We don’t know if we have 60 votes. We’re going to do our best.”

As the Senate wound down Wednesday night, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), the bill’s central Democratic architect, struck a somber note as he urged members to “exercise best judgment” on today’s “important and decisive vote,” and reminded them that they could keep working on the bill.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), a staunch opponent of the bill, insisted there was an erosion of support and asked his colleagues to “end this thing tomorrow.” Sessions said it “can’t be fixed in its present form.”

If the bill fails today in the Senate, the future of broad immigration overhaul is in doubt. The House is unlikely to take up the issue as its leaders want the Senate to proceed first, but some lawmakers say that Congress could take up tightly focused bills that deal with border security or work-site enforcement.

President Bush has pinned his hopes of a domestic policy achievement on a bill, like the Senate’s, that addresses enforcement and border security, creates a temporary-worker program and gives most of the estimated 12 million U.S. residents a way to become legal.

In a poll of California adults released Wednesday, 74% said immigration policy needs major changes and that illegal immigrants here at least two years should be able to apply for legal status.

The Public Policy Institute of California surveyed 2,003 residents June 12-19. But a nationwide CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll of 1,029 adults taken Friday through Sunday found that 47% oppose the Senate bill, while just 30% support it.

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Most of the votes Wednesday retained the bill’s delicate balance of measures meant to appeal to Republicans and Democrats, but which have also alienated lawmakers in both parties.

Some wavering lawmakers had pinned their decisions on the fate of the day’s amendments.

“I’m definitely a probably no,” said a smiling Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) immediately after the Senate rejected his amendment to restrict legalization to illegal immigrants who have been in the country at least four years.

The journey to today’s vote began years ago.

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Bush pressed the issue of immigration reform in a January 2004 speech. Attempts to pass legislation last year fizzled even as immigrants and their supporters marched in Los Angeles and other cities.

Soon after Democrats came to power in Congress in January, they announced that immigration legislation would be a priority, one of the few areas of agreement they shared with Bush. Top administration officials began meeting with Republicans to find a consensus position that would unite the party, and eventually began working with Kennedy, Feinstein and other Democrats to fashion the bipartisan bill.

But opposition has surged, in part over concerns that the administration could not be trusted to secure the borders and that the legalization provision was an “amnesty,” even though illegal immigrants would have to pay fines and fees, and meet other requirements.

Two Georgia Republicans who helped write the bill, Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson, eventually retracted their support. Through they had asked for upfront funding for border security and won it, Chambliss said that the $4.4 billion added to the bill wasn’t structured to guarantee it would be spent on border security.

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Amendments that failed Wednesday would have targeted the provision to let illegal immigrants apply for “Z visas” to allow them to legally live and work in the country. By a 56-41 vote, Lawmakers rejected an amendment from Sen. Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.) that would have barred Z visa holders from obtaining a legal permanent resident visa, or green card.

They also defeated, 53-45, a measure by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) that would have required all adult illegal immigrants to return home within two years of receiving a Z visa.

Lawmakers also voted down Webb’s amendment, 79-18, which the Virginia Democrat said would make the bill fairer and more practical, by eliminating the requirement that Z visa holders who want green cards must return home and reenter the United States legally.

Democratic amendments were aimed to readjust the bill’s proposed tilt toward skills and education over family ties in future immigration.

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An amendment to allow more foreign parents of U.S. citizens to immigrate was defeated, 56-41. Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) said his measure was meant to remedy the bill’s limits on Americans who want to bring their foreign-born parents, adult children or siblings to the United States.

An effort by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) to make it easier for immigrants to earn credit for family ties in the proposed point system was also defeated, 55-40.

“This action does nothing to allay my concerns about the increasingly right-wing tilt to these proceedings,” Menendez said, adding that it would be more difficult for him to support a move to a final vote on the bill.

Fifty-two senators supported the amendment to pull the Real ID provisions from the bill and 45 voted to keep them in.

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As the Senate opened for business Wednesday, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, a key Republican member of the bipartisan team, compared the coming debate to “trench warfare.”

Throughout the morning, the bill’s supporters engaged in a procedural jousting match with opponents who protested the lack of time to study the bill and the 26 amendments that were allowed in the debate.

Sens Sessions, Jeff DeMint (R-S.C.) and David Vitter (R-La.) used procedural objections to delay progress and stall votes on any more amendments after the Real ID vote.

“They tried to railroad this through today,” said DeMint, “but we derailed the train.”

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nicole.gaouette@latimes.com

noam.levey@latimes.com


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