WASHINGTON — Enthusiasm in the Senate for the debate over immigration gave way to reality Wednesday as party leaders quarreled to a stalemate over how to consider dozens of proposed amendments.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s move to schedule votes on the first five amendments was rejected by Republicans who opposed the Nevada Democrat’s plan to require 60 votes for passage.
“There is no reason, particularly in this first week, at the beginning of the process, to be blocking our amendments with a 60-vote margin,” said Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, who is leading the debate for Republicans. “It really looks like the fix is in, and the bill is rigged to pass basically as it is.”
Senators from both parties have suggested changes that could boost the chance of adding GOP votes needed to pass the legislation, or could erode the fragile bipartisan balance that now exists on the bill.
Many of the Republican amendments take aim at the cornerstone of the compromise: a 13-year pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million people living in the United States who entered illegally or have stayed on expired visas.
The GOP proposals would stop immigrants from making the transition to legal status until various border security and immigration enforcement goals are reached. Under the bill as written, a plan to halt 90% of all illegal crossings must be in operation before legal status is set in motion, but a security plan does not have to achieve that target.
Republican senators said the changes were needed to encourage action in the GOP-led House, where the conservative majority is less inclined to provide a route to citizenship.
Democrats argued that these proposals could prevent immigrants from ever gaining legal status. And they said the costs of security measures beyond the $6.5 billion already in the bill could prove unpopular.
“Its cost goes through the roof,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), a chief architect of the bill, who was joined on the Senate floor by another coauthor, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), in an unusual display of bipartisanship. “It’s not going to strengthen the bill, but could indeed kill it.”
Democrats, though, also have amendments that could cost votes, including one from Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) that would give gay Americans the same right to obtain visas for their foreign-born spouses as straight couples have.
When the bill was in committee, Leahy shelved the amendment rather than risk losing Republican votes. But his effort got a boost Wednesday from one of the eight senators in the bipartisan group that drafted the bill, Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.).
“I think that amendment should get a vote,” Bennet, who is also the chairman of his party’s campaign arm, said at a breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor.
As the senators sparred, advocacy groups fanned out across the capital and online for what is expected to be a lengthy process of moving the bill through Congress.
Former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a Republican, headlined an event hosted by a coalition of religious, law enforcement and small-business leaders — “Bibles, Badges and Business” — that supports the effort to rewrite immigration laws.
The Senate Conservatives Fund, an advocacy organization that opposes the bill, urged voters to call “amnesty Republicans” who voted Tuesday to allow the debate to begin. “If this bill passes, they will be largely responsible,” the fund’s executive director wrote to supporters.
Senate leaders and those involved in the immigration overhaul effort are somewhat divided over how much to alter the bill to gain GOP support.
Some believe they should aim for the biggest vote possible to put pressure on reluctant House Republicans. But others counter that there is no need to give more ground than what is absolutely needed to get the 60 votes required to pass. They say Republicans already have an incentive to support the effort because they need more support from Latino and minority voters.
But even starting the debate has proved daunting, despite an overwhelming vote Tuesday to do so. And exchanges between Republicans and Democrats on the Senate floor Wednesday grew testy.
Leahy, who is leading the floor debate for Democrats, gently reminded senators that any delays could keep them in Washington through the Fourth of July holiday.
“I’d like to start voting on something,” he said.