Senators said Wednesday they don’t want to be involved in certifying whether the border is secure, saying that putting that question before a political body could keep illegal immigrants from being legalized.
The Senate voted 59-39 to defeat an amendment by Sen. Mike Lee, Utah Republican, that would have required the Senate to certify the border is secure before the pathway to citizenship could commence for illegal immigrants.
“If we cut out Congress we’re cutting out the right of the American people on this issue,” Mr. Lee said.
But a majority of senators said they didn’t want to be included in that kind of decision-making, arguing that turning that decision over to Congress would hurt illegal immigrants who are awaiting legal status.
“This amendment could significantly delay even the initial registration process,” said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who is handling the bill on the floor.
The Senate also rejected a third border security amendment when it defeated Sen. Rand Paul’s “trust but verify” proposal. That, too, would have required Congress to certify the border is secure, and would have pushed the administration to complete the border fence in five years.
After more than a week’s debate, senators have defeated every substantive change to the bill, as the core of the immigration deal negotiated by four Democrats and four Republicans has held.
Under that deal, illegal immigrants get quick legal status, though citizenship would be delayed by at least a decade, giving the government time to spend money on border security and on a national electronic verification system to vet workers’ legality.
Republican senators huddled Wednesday to talk about a compromise border security amendment that the bill’s authors hope can win over a number of wavering GOP senators.
The fight over border security comes as the Congressional Budget Office, in its analysis of the bill on Tuesday, said illegal immigration will only be cut by 25 percent.
The CBO said the problem isn’t the border as much as it is the new guest-worker programs included in the bill, which analysts said will bring people into the country temporarily — but those people could refuse to go home when their time is done.
Senators on Tuesday rejected an amendment to require a system to track visitors by fingerprints be up and running before illegal immigrants get legal status.
Outside the Capitol, conservatives were rallying to oppose the measure, with radio talk show host Sean Hannity appearing to turn on the immigration deal, questioning the wisdom of Sen. Marco Rubio and the other Republicans who negotiated with Democrats.
Mr. Hannity, who after the 2012 election made waves by saying he was open to legalizing illegal immigrants, said he now believes Mr. Rubio and the other three Republicans in the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” who wrote the bill got duped.
“I do believe that he had the best of intentions when he started working on this issue. But I also told him during interviews early on that I do not trust Democrats like Chuck Schumer and Dick Durbin,” Mr. Hannity said of Mr. Rubio. “Democrats have a history of not being trustworthy. My prediction seems to have become a reality. Democrats are basically using this as a political issue, not for the sake of solving an important problem but to boost future election chances by making this a wedge issue for 2014.”
Mr. Rubio has said he cannot vote for the bill he wrote unless it includes stiffer border security.