Senate Democrats yesterday defeated a Republican effort to authorize $3 billion for new border security and immigration enforcement. Instead, the Democrats proposed a new agriculture workers program to bring in hundreds of thousands of foreign workers and grant legal status to illegal aliens now working in the fields.
It was the first major skirmish on immigration since President Bush's bill collapsed last month, and members of both parties are filing piecemeal measures to deal with various aspects of the crisis and leave for another day the issue dealing with the estimated 12 million to 20 million illegal aliens already here.
"We're now moving to Plan B," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican who took a bruising last month for his support for the broader immigration bill, and who was the chief sponsor of yesterday's border-security amendment. "That will require us to address the major changes that must be made a piece at a time. Today, we're addressing border security, visa overstays, sanctuary cities and other important issues."
But Democrats argued that the amendment broke legislative rules that separate rewriting legislation and enacting a spending bill, and, joined by three Republicans, defeated the measure 52 votes to 44 votes.
"This is not a vote on immigration," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, accused Republicans attempting a "do-over" to placate conservatives angered by the earlier bill. "I guess it's to try to make them politically OK among the voters."
The piecemeal approach is favored by some members of both parties, including several of those who fought hardest for the earlier bill, including Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican. The two top Democratic 2008 presidential candidates, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois, told the National Council of La Raza earlier that they would be "open" to voting for piecemeal legislation.
Finding the pieces everyone agrees on will be difficult. Republicans want security first, and Democrats want legalization for illegal alien college students and agriculture workers.
Democrats tried to get an agreement yesterday to pass an agriculture worker bill that would create a program for future agriculture workers and offer a path to citizenship to hundreds of thousands of illegal alien agriculture workers already here. Republicans objected to giving illegal aliens a path to citizenship, a proposal that doomed the Bush legislation.
Last week, Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, tried to attach to the defense bill the Dream Act, which would give illegal alien college students a path to citizenship. Mr. Reid pulled the defense bill from consideration, though Mr. Durbin will likely try again in September.
The same process is playing out in the House, where Democratic leaders signaled earlier they were open to a piece-by-piece approach. The Bush administration is reluctant to do that, arguing that all of the pieces have to be done together. Mr. Bush says that a guest-worker program for future workers is needed to take pressure off the border and rejects trying to deport those who entered the country illegally.
He has vowed to veto the $37.6 billion homeland security spending bill for exceeding his own spending request by $2.3 billion.
The president vowed as well to veto every appropriations bill that exceeds his funding request, inviting a budget battle with the Democrat-majority Congress which Republicans say would curb spending and re-establish theirs as the party of fiscal responsibility in time for the 2008 elections.
Measures such as the homeland security bill are expected to test the budget discipline of Republican leaders. Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, a leading sponsor of the legislation, said he would have considered voting to override a veto of the bill if the extra money for border enforcement had been included, provided Democrats didn't attach even more spending.
"I guess my response to the administration would be: 'Listen, we need to do border security. You're never going to get comprehensive immigration [reform] until you do border security. Let's face up to it and do it.' "
He said the president should have included the $3 billion border-security initiatives in one of the $100 billion emergency supplemental bills he sent to Congress to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which have occasionally included homeland security spending. The Senate, which has not passed any appropriations bills, is expected to vote on the homeland security measure this week.