Senate buries immigration bill

Times Staff Writer

The Senate on Thursday resoundingly defeated a bill that would have overhauled the nation’s immigration laws for the first time in two decades, crushing the chances of settling the contentious matter in the next few years.

After a rancorous final debate on the bill, lawmakers on both sides pledged to deal with illegal immigration and secure the southern border -- but they disagreed not only on why the legislation failed, but on what to do next.

The 46-53 rout was 14 votes short of the 60 needed to end the debate and move the bill forward. It was a major defeat for President Bush, who had pushed hard to achieve his last major domestic initiative. It was also a bitter finale for the bipartisan team of senators and two Cabinet secretaries who worked for months to craft the intricate bill.


About two-thirds of the Senate’s Republicans joined almost a third of the Democrats to kill the bill, which had been carefully constructed to appeal to both parties, but also drew bipartisan opposition.

Supporters appeared grim and subdued after the vote. They expressed regret at the bill’s demise and warned of the consequences.

“What occurred today is fairly final,” said Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.), a member of the coalition behind the legislation. The Cuban-born Martinez spoke of his deep disappointment and that of people “who share my background as an immigrant to this country, many of whom were looking to this effort as a way to improve their lives.”

With defeat of the legislation, cities and states will certainly feel pressure to come up with their own solutions to a national problem.

The vote also revealed deep fissures within the GOP.

Republican senators who backed the compromise measure said its loss shifts the onus to their opponents to offer proposals. The Republicans who led the charge against the bill have offered no new plans and said they would continue to urge the administration to enforce existing laws. And they portrayed Thursday’s vote as a victory for the American people, a characterization the bill’s supporters flatly rejected.

Some senators spoke about trying to pass smaller pieces of the 761-page bill, namely to create an agriculture guest worker program and allow illegal immigrant children to gain citizenship. Others dismissed the piecemeal approach, saying politicians would steer clear of immigration for some time.


“I doubt if there’s the political will for that,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a conservative who pressed hard for the bill.

An unusually downbeat Bush expressed his dismay and made it clear he would urge Congress to move on to other issues, including energy and healthcare. “Legal immigration is one of the top concerns of the American people, and Congress’ failure to act on it is a disappointment,” Bush said during a visit to the Naval War College in Rhode Island. “A lot of us worked hard to see if we couldn’t find a common ground. It didn’t work.”

Mexican President Felipe Calderon said the Senate had made a “great mistake” in rejecting the bill. “The U.S. economy cannot keep going without migrant labor,” he said.

Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), who opposed the bill, described the outcome as “a great vote not for any individual senator, but for the American people.” Before the vote, Vitter had dismissed the bill on the Senate floor as “a big amnesty with inadequate enforcement” and said it would “cause the problem to grow, not diminish.”

He was joined at a news conference by four other Republicans, including North Carolina Sen. Elizabeth Dole, who said the Senate should restart with “a laser focus” on border security and pressed for local and state officials to help enforce immigration laws. When asked what message the vote sent to the country’s illegal immigrants, Dole said: “That is something that can be dealt with at a later time.”

Democratic supporters painted the outcome as a defeat for the American people. “The big winner today was obstruction,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who had wrangled repeatedly on the floor with opponents. “The big winner today was a status quo that amounts to silent amnesty.”


Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) attributed the onslaught of criticism, some of which briefly shut down Senate phones, to “about 20% of the population that came alive very strongly.” Feinstein and California’s other Democratic senator, Barbara Boxer, supported the bill.

The legislation included border security provisions that would have added thousands of agents, along with physical and virtual barriers such as cameras and radar. It would have created a work-site system to verify that all workers have legal status. After conservative prodding, lawmakers added $4.4 billion in funding to the bill to accomplish those goals.

Once those criteria were met, the bill’s other provisions would have kicked in. A temporary-worker program would have brought in 200,000 workers a year, eligible illegal immigrants who had been on a probationary legal status would have been able to get the bill’s new “Z visa,” and preference for future immigrants would have shifted to those with needed skills and education.

Prospects for an immigration overhaul moving forward in the House are slim to none. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) had said she wouldn’t pursue immigration until after the Senate passed a bill. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose), head of the House immigration subcommittee, said Thursday’s vote “effectively ends comprehensive immigration reform efforts in the 110th Congress.” Although Democrats have a solid margin of control in the House, immigration overhaul still faced tough odds there. Democrats had insisted they would need 70 Republican votes to pass a bill. Earlier this week, House Republicans passed a symbolic resolution against the Senate bill, 114 to 23.

Reid said that he was open to considering parts of the legislation as standalone bills, including AgJobs, a special program for farmworkers, and the Dream Act, which would give illegal immigrant children a way to earn citizenship if they are in school or the military.

“With harvest coming up, the fact that agricultural labor is way down, we need to do this bill,” said Feinstein, a key proponent of AgJobs. “People are afraid,” she said, speaking of growers in California and other states eyeing the looming harvest season.


Twelve Republicans, 33 Democrats and Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) voted to support the bill. Thirty-seven Republicans, 15 Democrats and Sen. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.) voted to block the bill. Eighteen senators who had voted to restart debate on the bill just two days earlier shifted their votes to oppose it Thursday, including five Democrats.

Five of the 12 Senate Democrats and 18 of the 21 Republicans who face an election next year voted against the bill. The four Senate Democrats running for president voted for the bill, as did Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a key supporter. Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) voted against it.

An unusual hush settled on the Senate immediately before the vote, even though the chamber’s walls were lined with staff looking on and visitors, including Lofgren and other California House members.

Senators on the bipartisan team behind the bill said they knew Wednesday night that it was likely to fail. They telegraphed their resignation very early in the vote when the bill’s lead Republican architect, Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl, winked, then grimaced at Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.), another team member. Salazar nodded, then put a hand on Kyl’s back.

Several bipartisan team members said the months of meetings had forged bonds across the aisle. Others acknowledged that the bruising immigration debate had opened new rifts.

“I do think this has created real divisions in our party, in our Senate caucus and our Republican Party more generally,” Vitter said. “But all those things can and will be healed.” He called on the Senate to reach a consensus on enforcement at the border and workplace.


Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) said Congress should ensure that the administration does more to enforce current immigration laws. “No one here believes in the status quo.... We can’t solve it with empty promises,” DeMint said. “The first step when we leave here today is make sure the administration got the clear message that enforcement comes first.”

Vitter suggested that the administration send a request to Congress for special funding bill to pay for stepped-up enforcement.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who spent hundreds of hours working on the bill and cajoling recalcitrant Republicans, complained that “necessary tools, which we needed to be able to do more than we can currently do in enforcing the law ... were left on the floor of the Senate” on Thursday.

He said the bill’s failure meant the administration would not have a mandatory employment verification system or the ability to punish rogue employers with hefty fines instead of “corporate parking tickets.”

“Although they may not be adequate in every respect to the job, I will enforce the laws we have,” Chertoff said. But he added a warning: “You will continue to see heart-wrenching examples of families being pulled apart, because I have an obligation to enforce the law, whether it’s painful to do or whether it’s pleasurable to do.”

Senate veterans on the team behind the bill sounded unperturbed by the setback. “Some legislation takes many years,” said Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), describing the vote as “just a bump in the road.”


Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), the leading Democrat behind the bill, compared immigration reform to other social movements in U.S. history, such as the civil rights movement or the drive for women’s rights, struggles that took many years.

“You cannot stop the march for progress in the United States,” he said.