Friday, June 29, 2007

The on-again-off-again immigration bill took a fatal blow yesterday as a majority of senators voted to block it, responding to millions of e-mails, phone calls and faxes from voters furious over a measure they saw as amnesty.

The vote to block the bill was 53-46 — a crushing defeat given that supporters fell 14 votes shy of the 60 needed to limit debate and set an up-or-down vote. It also represents a major loss of support from just two days earlier, when 64 senators had voted to resurrect the bill from its first defeat three weeks ago.

“The message is crystal clear that the American people want us to start with enforcement, both at the border and at the workplace, and don’t want promises,” said Sen. David Vitter, Louisiana Republican. “They want action, they want results, they want proof because they’ve heard all the promises before.”

It was a devastating defeat for President Bush, who invested a tremendous amount of political capital into immigration reform.

Despite teaming with Democrats, attacking some of his own staunchest supporters, deploying two Cabinet secretaries and much of his top policy hierarchy nearly full time to the Capitol and making calls himself, Mr. Bush was unable to secure victory and is now left without a major domestic accomplishment for his second term.

“A lot of us worked hard to see if we couldn’t find a common ground. It didn’t work,” Mr. Bush said.

In yesterday’s vote, 33 Democrats, 12 Republicans and one independent voted to proceed with the bill, while 37 Republicans, 15 Democrats and one independent voted to block it.

The bill was always hanging in precarious balance, written in backroom negotiations by a small group of Democrats and Republicans with the help of the Bush administration. It involved a trade — the Republicans agreed to a path to citizenship for the estimated 12 million to 20 million illegal aliens in the country, and the Democrats agreed to a temporary-worker program for future workers and to rewrite the immigration system to favor those with needed skills or education.

But concerns over amnesty, fears that a new guest-worker program would harm U.S. workers and a lack of confidence in the Bush administration to enforce stricter laws piled up.

Opponents pointed to an evaluation by the Congressional Budget Office that said the bill would only reduce future illegal entries by about 25 percent and said the new guest-worker program would actually lead to hundreds of thousands of new illegal aliens from workers overstaying their job permits.

Senate Democratic leaders said they may try again later this year, but Rep. Zoe Lofgren, California Democrat, who was charged with crafting a House bill, said yesterday’s vote “effectively ends comprehensive immigration-reform efforts in the 110th Congress.”

She said the House will instead see if there are small bills that can be passed to try to improve the current system. Many Republicans encouraged that approach, urging both chambers to turn their attention to the $4.4 billion in spending Mr. Bush said was needed to secure the borders.

In the meantime, Mr. Bush’s Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said he will keep enforcing the law, including continuing to hire 18,300 border patrol agents, build 370 miles of fencing along the 1,950-mile U.S.-Mexico border and erect watchtowers to fill out the “virtual fence.”

“You will continue to see heart-wrenching examples of families being pulled apart because I have an obligation to enforce the law, whether it’s painful to do or whether it’s pleasurable to do,” he said. “But in order to regain the credibility with the American people that has been squandered over 30 years, we’re going to have to be tough.”

Senators repeatedly talked about pressure from voters swaying the day.

The opposition was so fierce it shut down the Senate’s Internet server earlier in the debate and yesterday morning flooded the phone system beyond capacity, senators said. One grass-roots group, NumbersUSA, recorded 1.5 million faxes sent through its system to Senate offices during the weeks of debate.

“This immigration bill has become a war between the American people and their government,” said Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican. “This vote today is really not about immigration, it’s about whether we’re going to listen to the American people.”

The bill’s supporters, though, praised each other’s courage for standing firm in the face of voters’ demands.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, told senators to ignore the outraged phone calls flooding their offices, saying there were many parts of the bill “they don’t understand.” And Sen. Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican, read from Irish statesman Edmund Burke’s “Speech to the Electors of Bristol,” in which the 18th-century lawmaker argued that elected representatives must follow their own judgment of what’s best, even when the voters disagree.

Mr. Specter lamented those who switched their vote yesterday and in a vote Wednesday night on an amendment that punched a hole through the bill. He said senators changed their votes 23 times during that Wednesday night vote alone, jockeying for political advantage.

“We talk about profiles in courage — this is a profile in cynicism,” Mr. Specter said. “Votes were changed in order to defeat the bill, not because they expressed the preference of the senators.”

Mr. Specter, though, has acknowledged repeatedly he has done the opposite and voted against a number of amendments he actually would have liked to see passed simply to keep the bill alive.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon said the Senate had made a “grave error” in killing the legislation, according to the Associated Press. The action, he said, would cut off legal immigration, permit continued unlawful entries and human rights violations, and decrease security on both sides of the border.

In yesterday’s showdown vote, one senator, Sam Brownback of Kansas, changed his vote midway.

“The country’s not ready,” the Kansas Republican said later when asked about his switch. “I thought we were, but just concluded the country’s not ready.”

He was the only presidential candidate in the Senate to oppose the bill. All four Democratic presidential candidates voted for it, as did Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican.

Mr. Brownback said he wasn’t sure how the issue can be split into separate parts.

“Maybe there’s a way, but it seems to me now it’s best to just give it a rest,” he said.

Of 34 senators up for re-election in 2008, only nine voted to push the bill forward.

“When I saw the ‘08 Democrats voting against cloture the first time on that Thursday night [three weeks ago], I was like, ‘You know what? This thing is in trouble because it’s not just Republicans that have political trouble with this, it’s Democrats,’ ” said Sen. John Thune, South Dakota Republican, who opposed the bill.

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