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Immigration bill faces rough road

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 26, 2007

THE WASHINGTON TIMES The White House says it has the votes to resurrect the immigration bill on the Senate floor today, though enough senators said they may change their minds in other votes later this week to leave the bill's ultimate fate in doubt.

To pass the Senate, the bill must earn 60 votes today, survive a series of amendments, earn 60 votes in a follow-up vote likely to come Thursday, and then pass with majority support — all difficult tests on an issue that deeply divides both parties, and American voters.

"Our intelligence suggests that there will be the votes there to move on to the bill and to begin considering amendments," White House Deputy Chief of Staff Joel Kaplan told reporters yesterday as President Bush and his administration make a final push for the bill's passage.

The bill collapsed on the Senate floor nearly three weeks ago, when half of the Senate — Republicans and Democrats — voted to block it, demanding more time to pass amendments. But Republican and Democratic leaders, prodded by Mr. Bush, have decided to resuscitate the bill and have agreed to a limited debate that would allow for consideration of about two-dozen hand-picked amendments, split between the two parties.

Rank-and-file conservative Republicans said the process is stifling. Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican, said leaders are attempting to "take the nation's most emotionally charged issue and try to ram it down America's throat."

They blamed Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, for this week's unusual floor procedures, which include rewriting the bill into a brand-new version, bypassing the usual committees and preventing consideration of all but the limited set of amendments.

But Mr. Reid said Republican anger should be directed at their own leaders in the Senate and at Mr. Bush, who have agreed to the unusual procedures to try to force the bill through.

"I would not have considered employing it in this instance without the full support of Senator [Mitch] McConnell," Mr. Reid wrote in a letter. "It seems to me appropriate for the two leaders to work together to overcome the tactics of a small number of Senators in order to allow the full Senate to debate an important national issue like immigration. The White House made clear that it also favors such a procedure, since the immigration bill is one of President Bush's top priorities."

Senators voted 50-45 to block the bill earlier this month, with the bill's supporters falling 15 votes short of the 60 needed to overcome the blockade. The Democratic caucus delivered 38 votes, and Republicans delivered just seven.

This time, Democratic leaders think they can round up 40 votes from their caucus, leaving Mr. Bush and Republican leaders to deliver another 20.

A check by The Washington Times found Mr. Bush is poised to deliver on that promise.

Opponents of the bill counted about 32 senators prepared to block the bill and another dozen senators they said would swing today's vote. But The Times found four of those swing votes said they will vote to revive the bill today: Republican Sens. Christopher S. Bond of Missouri and Thad Cochran of Mississippi, and Democratic Sens. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico and Ben Nelson of Nebraska. Press reports showed others have also said they are likely to vote to revive the bill, including Sen. Richard M. Burr, North Carolina Republican.

But several of those, such as Mr. Bond and Mr. Bingaman, said their support today doesn't mean they will vote for the bill in the end.

Mr. Bond has an amendment, expected to receive a vote as part of the new bargain, which would allow illegal aliens legal status but prevent them from obtaining citizenship. A spokeswoman for Mr. Bond said if the amendment doesn't pass, he will later vote to block the bill.

Still, the White House was happy to live to fight on.

"Our intelligence is that the votes will be there because enough members of the Senate appreciate that the status quo is unacceptable and that without immigration reform, they're not going to get the tough new border security and work site enforcement measures that we need to get control of the border," Mr. Kaplan said.

But Mr. DeMint said that meant that Mr. Bush was "in effect holding real reforms hostage to amnesty."

With other tight votes expected later this week on amendments, the administration is making a full-court press.

Mr. Kaplan said the White House will not take an active role in pushing for or against most amendments, but they are backing an amendment to make corrections to the bill and are opposing another designed to protect taxpayer information and lessen the requirements on businesses to comply with the law.

A wide range of groups — from home builders to civil liberties groups to Hispanic immigrant advocates — supports the taxpayer and employer amendment, but the Bush administration says it would weaken the new employer penalties built into the bill.

Mr. Bush has made phone calls to senators, and two Cabinet secretaries have been such frequent lobbyists on Capitol Hill for the bill that Mr. Kaplan joked "they've basically been tenants up there for the last two or three months."

That's led to charges of arm-twisting and deals being cut.

"The American people have been working day in and day out to make the Senate understand they do not want this bill, and the administration is up on Capitol Hill trying to buy votes from senators," said Rosemary Jenks, government relations director for NumbersUSA. "When we see the final vote count, we'll know where to look for favors."