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Amendments to dilute immigration bill are defeated

Times Staff Writer

Supporters of a comprehensive immigration bill repelled a series of attacks on it on the Senate floor this week, significantly raising the prospects that the Senate will pass the controversial measure.

On Thursday, the fragile bipartisan coalition behind the bill thwarted a bid to limit the temporary-worker program to five years. It was a one-vote victory that supporters interpreted as a signal they would be able to parry efforts to undermine the bill.

“At the end of this week, we are still together and we’re moving forward to accomplish what’s going to be tough and fair and practical, realistic immigration reform for our country,” said Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.), one of the 12 Democrats and Republicans who negotiated the compromise bill.

The measure -- dubbed the “grand bargain” -- would provide a path to citizenship for the estimated 12 million workers now in the U.S. illegally but would reduce the number of green cards available to family members and increase the number for workers with needed skills. The bill has been denounced by some on the right as “amnesty” and by some on the left as a measure that would take jobs from Americans.

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President Bush, who has endorsed the compromise, on Thursday used his harshest language so far to denounce members of his party who had derided what would be the first major immigration overhaul since 1986.

“Anything short of kicking them out, as far as some people are concerned, is called amnesty,” Bush said during a Rose Garden news conference. “You can’t kick them out. Anybody who advocates trying to dig out 12 million people who have been in our society for a while is sending a signal to the American people that’s just not real.”

The amendment to put a time limit on the temporary-worker program was defeated 49-48 Thursday only when Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii) changed his vote after an entreaty from Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the bill’s main Democratic sponsor. The program, which the Senate scaled back earlier this week, would allow up to 200,000 foreign workers a year into the country.

The amendment split California’s senators, both Democrats: Dianne Feinstein, a member of the bill’s bipartisan group of sponsors, voted against the amendment and Barbara Boxer voted for it.

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“American workers are going to be hurt by this,” Boxer said before the vote. “This is a modest amendment. This is a sensible amendment.”

But Feinstein, who acknowledged that she had qualms about the temporary-worker program, voted the opposite way.

“This was just a very important vote, because there are certain core principles in this bill that those people that participated in putting it together care about it,” she said. “And those core principles are formed on this basis: Republicans cannot pass a bill without Democrats, and Democrats cannot pass a bill without Republicans.”

Debate on the bill is scheduled to continue today, but the Senate has no more votes planned until after its weeklong Memorial Day recess.

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In another vote Thursday, senators resoundingly defeated an amendment that would have eliminated a key part of the bill: the plan to allow most illegal immigrants who arrived before Jan. 1, 2007, to apply for visas that would allow them to stay eight years. Immigrants would have to pay fines and meet other requirements before earning the visas and possibly becoming citizens. Republican opponents have criticized the plan as amnesty.

The amendment went down by a vote of 66-29.

“In my opinion and in the opinion of many Americans, this is amnesty pure and simple,” said Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), the amendment’s sponsor. He argued that the immigration bill repeated 1986 immigration legislation errors “when we did amnesty but not enough enforcement.”

“This is not 1986,” Kennedy responded on the Senate floor, his voice rising. “1986 was amnesty. This is not amnesty.”

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Senators also defeated a measure Thursday that would have permitted law enforcement officers to question someone about immigration status if officers had “probable cause” to believe the individual might be illegal. And senators adopted an amendment exempting children of some Filipino World War II veterans from limits on how many visas they could obtain.

Supporters of the immigration compromise said the week’s scorecard suggested the plan would survive the legislative process, at least in the Senate. The bill’s fate in the House is less certain.

Republican supporters of the bill acknowledged the vehement opposition among their political base. “Yes, I have learned some new words from some of my constituents,” joked Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), a leader of the opposition to last year’s immigration bill who switched to support this year’s version. “But I do think that, as we have been able to explain the bill and to answer some of the questions and dispel some of the myths, people have begun to realize that the bill is not quite as bad” as they thought.

Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) said the opposition from both sides of the political spectrum showed that the public had become unaccustomed to bipartisan compromises.

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“For too long, we’ve had politics of polarization, and this is one example that I hope will serve our nation to see that we can come together, Democrats and Republicans, to solve a big problem. This is a big problem and it requires a big answer....

“I would say that it’s been a good week. Adelante,” he added -- “onward” in Spanish.

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maura.reynolds.@latimes.com

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