WASHINGTON — Senators kept the bipartisan immigration bill largely unchanged Thursday after dispatching dozens of proposed amendments even as they punted many of the thorniest issues to next week.
The day’s session at the Senate Judiciary Committee revolved largely around the elusive issue of enforcement: how to prevent immigrants from remaining in this country after having entered illegally or overstaying their visas.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), one of the eight authors of the sweeping bill, argued that a strict employment verification system would be among the best tools for clamping down on illegal immigration.
Under the 844-page bill, companies would need to verify the legal status of all employees — with large firms beginning within two years of the new law taking effect. All businesses would need to be in compliance within five years.
“The mandatory E-Verify system is the ultimate border security, because they come here to get jobs,” Graham said.
Republicans, though, wanted a faster 18-month timeline to get the system running, a proposal that was rejected by the committee as unreachable.
“Why must we wait three, four, five, six years to have every business use this system?” asked Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the committee.
“It would be impossible to have it work in 18 months,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), a chief architect of the bill. “It’s a good idea to get this going as soon as possible. It’s a bad idea to set a time frame.”
Thursday’s session wrapped up three days of lengthy hearings on the bill; the 18-member committee, which includes four of the bill’s authors, aims to finish its deliberations next week. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) announced that the bill would take priority on the floor — probably appearing before the full Senate in the first week of June.
The bill is the first attempt by Congress in more than five years to address the nation’s much-criticized immigration system. The bipartisan legislation involves complex political trade-offs — tougher border security, new guest-worker programs and a path to citizenship in 13 years for the estimated 11 million people who have entered the country illegally or overstayed their visas.
A similar bipartisan effort in the House appeared to be back on track Thursday after Democrats and Republicans had been at a stalemate on key issues.
Senators on the committee appeared to be increasingly holding their fire for the coming floor debate, with some calculating that their amendments might find a better reception in the full Senate.
Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) temporarily shelved his proposal to double the number of visas for low-skilled guest workers; Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) put off a committee vote on his amendment to beef up visas for construction trades.
Another crucial issue that is unlikely to be resolved in committee is the requirement for an exit system to track those who overstay their visas. Such a system has broad support from Democrats and Republicans, but has been rejected by the committee as prohibitively expensive.
Senators found some areas of agreement, including a proposal from Grassley that would require the government to issue weekly reports of those who fail the employment verification checks.
Much of the action, however, remained behind the scenes as the eight Senate authors worked to tweak the bill’s approach on visas for highly skilled workers. The issue is important to big business, as well as to Republican Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, who has indicated that he could potentially support the broader bill if changes are made. But increasing the number of such visas is opposed by organized labor unions, who warn that foreign professionals would take jobs from American-born workers.
As the committee halted for the week, that matter and others were postponed pending more talks.