Negotiators scramble to salvage bill
WASHINGTON – Republicans and Democrats scrambled Thursday to salvage a fragile compromise that would legalize millions of unlawful immigrants after it suffered setbacks.The measure, a top priority for President Bush that’s under attack from the right and left, faced a crucial test vote designed to measure senators’ appetite for the “grand bargain” between liberals and conservatives on immigration.The legislation failed a similar hurdle earlier in the day, and Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., threatened that if it failed again, “the bill’s over with.”Republican negotiators were working to break an impasse on a proposal that would let employers continue to handpick the high-skilled workers they want to get green cards, rather than requiring workers to qualify through a new, government-run point system.That change, sought by Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, with vigorous backing from the high-tech community, could upset the delicate balance underlying the contentious immigration measure.The bill would tighten borders, institute a new system to prevent employers from hiring undocumented workers, and give many of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants a pathway to legal status. Conceived by an improbable coalition, it is exposing deep rifts within both parties and is loathed by most GOP conservatives.Crafters of the broader compromise also were working to hammer out an agreement that would allow votes on key proposals sought by senators in both parties.As time ran short for an agreement that could rescue the bill, Reid said Bush must lean on Republicans to back a deal that the president spearheaded and most Democrats are eager to support.”If the president has any clout at all within his own Senate Republican delegation, shouldn’t he be pushing to have Republicans vote for this?” Reid said.In a hint of how contentious the measure is within Republican ranks, however, Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi, the GOP whip, said Bush might have better luck steering clear of the issue.”I hope he concentrates on the G-8,” Lott said, referring to the annual meeting of industrialized nations Bush is attending in Germany.”His comments last week were not helpful,” Lott added, alluding to Bush’s remark – repeated twice last week – that those who deride the bill as amnesty are trying to frighten Americans.By a vote of 63-33, the Senate fell far short of the 60 votes that would have been needed to limit debate on the immigration measure and put it on a path to passage. Republicans – even those who helped craft the measure and are ultimately expected to support it – banded together to oppose that move, while a majority of Democrats backed it. Fifteen Democrats and Independent Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont, who is usually allied with their party, voted “no.”Republicans were seeking assurances they would get chances to add several conservative-backed changes that would toughen the measure.Democrats are “simply not going to get anywhere trying to stuff the minority,” said Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the GOP leader.Republicans who cut the immigration deal, and are working to fight off challenges to it from within their own ranks, nonetheless voted with the rest of their party.”Clearly, we need more time,” said Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., a framer of the agreement.Proponents in both parties were trying to find a way of reversing a blow their compromise sustained when the Senate voted to phase out the bill’s temporary worker program after five years.The 49-48 vote just after midnight on making the temporary worker program itself temporary came two weeks after the Senate, also by a one-vote margin, rejected an earlier attempt by Sen. Byron Dorgan to end the program after five years. The North Dakota Democrat says immigrants take many jobs Americans could fill.The Bush administration, along with business interests and their congressional allies, were already angry that the temporary worker program had been cut in half from its original 400,000-person-a-year target.A five-year sunset, they said, could knock the legs from the precarious bipartisan coalition. The change “is a tremendous problem, but it’s correctable,” said Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa.Until the Dorgan vote was tallied, Specter and other architects of the compromise had succeeded in maneuvering through a minefield of major challenges.They had turned back a bid to reduce the number of illegal immigrants who could gain lawful status. They also defeated an effort to allow more family members of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents to qualify for green cards.Still, several problematic changes proposed by conservatives prevailed, including one by Cornyn that would make it easier to locate and deport illegal immigrants whose visa applications are rejected.The bill would have barred law enforcement agencies from seeing applications for so-called Z visas that allow illegal immigrants to gain legal status.Specter said Thursday that the issue would be revisited, given concerns that eligible applicants might be dissuaded from coming forward if they believed they could be deported as a result.If no agreement is reached to undo the changes, they could be addressed in a future Democratic-dominated conference on the immigration measure to reconcile Senate and House versions.—The bill is S1348.
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