The top Senate Democrat said yesterday that President Bush must prove he can deliver more Republican votes before Democrats will put the immigration bill, which collapsed last week, back on the Senate schedule.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told Mr. Bush that the only hope for the bill is if he delivers the votes of more than 20 Republican senators to break a filibuster and pass the measure.
The Nevada Democrat had a frank assessment of the bill’s prospects, saying the 51-member Democratic caucus was “about maxed out” at the 38 votes they delivered on a test vote on the bill last week 22 short of breaking a filibuster. They were joined by just seven Republicans one-third of the number Mr. Reid says the president must deliver.
“It’s the president’s bill,” Mr. Reid said, adding that if Democrats are being counted on to supply the additional votes, “it won’t happen.”
Mr. Bush, who will visit with Senate Republicans in a closed-door meeting today to try to rally support, is optimistic, even to the point of sounding jaunty.
“I believe we can get it done. I’ll see you at the bill signing,” he told reporters at a press conference in Bulgaria yesterday.
Democrats and White House officials who both say they are working toward getting a bill passed spent the weekend pointing fingers at each other. Mr. Bush, who was traveling in Europe, named Mr. Reid in his weekly radio address, and in TV appearances several administration officials fingered the Democratic leader as the roadblock.
Yesterday, Democrats fired back with a letter saying Mr. Bush has worked with them so far but now needs to show “stronger leadership.”
“Simply put, we need many more than seven Republicans to vote for cloture and final passage of this bill,” Mr. Reid and the rest of his Senate leadership team wrote.
The letter offers no indication of how Mr. Bush can prove he has earned enough support, and Republican aides said it was a move to try to conceal Mr. Reid’s own efforts to sink the chances for a bill.
The immigration bill is the result of a “grand bargain” negotiated behind closed doors by a small bipartisan group of senators and the Bush administration. It includes a path to citizenship for most of the estimated 12 million to 20 million illegal aliens, a temporary-worker program for future foreign workers, and a rewrite of immigration rules to favor those with needed skills or educational attainment.
Those who negotiated the bill spent the past two weeks the Senate was in session trying to fend off amendments from both sides. Democrats wanted to end the temporary-worker program, seeing it as exploitative, and expand family-based immigration; Republicans sought to improve enforcement and make the administration prove it has first secured the border.
But the bargain collapsed last week. First, the Senate adopted a Democrat-led amendment that ended the temporary-worker program after five years and a Republican-led amendment that would allow those who don’t qualify for legalization to be deported. Then, the Senate voted 50-45 against cutting off debate falling 15 votes shy of the 60 votes needed.
As the bill was foundering, senators floated a number of ideas to try to break the stalemate and win more votes, including what became known as the “magic amendment” that would have undone some of the amendments that passed and could have included other changes designed to earn extra support.
But those involved in the “grand bargain” said they are taking a different approach this week.
“Humpty Dumpty fell off and we’re going to put Humpty Dumpty back together, but it isn’t going to be done the same way that we were dealing with last week,” said Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican. “Some of the things that were kind of in play last week may not be quite the same now.”
His counterpart, Sen Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the Democrats’ chief negotiator in the grand bargain, said he saw good signs from statements over the weekend and said Mr. Bush has the chance to be convincing today.
“There’s nothing more persuasive than sincerity, and I think the president on this issue has demonstrated knowledge, awareness and sincerity, and I think that’s a powerful message,” he said.
Mr. Bush will likely find a polite but wary audience behind the closed doors. Many Senate Republicans think he is making a political and policy mistake by pressing for this immigration bill, and some accuse him of caving on key principles.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican and an opponent of the bill, said Mr. Bush has even backed off of the principles he floated earlier this year in a Powerpoint presentation when the grand bargain was being formed.
“The principles that were stated in the Powerpoint presentation got watered down in every way,” he said. “The bill does not do what it needs to do. It is a political compromise.”
It will be difficult to find enough support among senators to break the filibuster.
In a test vote last week, 38 Republicans, joined by 11 Democrats and one independent, voted to filibuster the immigration bill. Just seven Republicans joined 37 Democrats and one independent in voting to limit the debate and force a final up-or-down vote.
Last week, Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, said he thought the vote on a final bill would be similar to the test vote. If so, that’s bad news for the bill’s backers, since the test vote garnered 50 votes in opposition enough to kill the bill.