Thursday, June 7, 2007

Getting Kennedy’s OK / Reader reaction

The immigration “grand bargain” imploded in the Senate last night under a Republican filibuster as both parties dug in on matters of procedure and amendments.

The key test vote came last night on a motion to end debate and go to a vote on the merits of the bill. It couldn’t even get a majority of senators, losing a 50-45 vote, 15 votes short of the 60 needed to break the filibuster.

Sources said Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, will leave open the possibility of bringing the bill back up later this year, but for now it is a crushing end to President Bush’s highest current domestic priority — and one of the few areas he said was ripe for bipartisan agreement.

“The headline is going to be ‘Democrats vote for the bill, Republicans vote against it, the president fails again,’ ” Mr. Reid said, adding that he could not allow Republicans to take any more time on the bill because he needed to move on to other issues.

Next up for the Senate is a Democrat-driven, nonbinding vote of no-confidence in Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, who is the highest-ranking Hispanic in the Bush administration.

Republicans said that if Mr. Reid had waited another day, he might have had an immigration agreement.

“A little more patience by Harry could pay dividends,” Minority Whip Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican, said just before the evening vote that marked the second Democratic effort to break the filibuster. The first lost on a lopsided 63-33 vote, 27 votes short of what was needed.

The “grand bargain” was the result of closed-door negotiations between a small bipartisan group of Democrats and Republicans and the Bush administration. The bill they produced offered a path to citizenship to most illegal aliens in exchange for promises of better enforcement, creation of a temporary-worker program, and rewriting the immigration system to give priority to those with needed skills.

But it was always a tenuous deal, opposed by liberals for being too harsh on illegal aliens and conservatives for being too lenient.

Republicans complained Democrats were shutting them out from offering enough amendments, and a filibuster was their only option.

Mr. Reid blamed the administration for not doing more to convince Republicans to vote for the bill. He said he called Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff late Wednesday night to plead with him to try to break Republicans’ unified deadlock — a plea he made from the Senate floor several times yesterday.

“Could the president deliver at least a vote,” Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, told reporters early in the day, after the initial failure to cut off debate.

Last night, both Mr. Chertoff and Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez came to the Capitol to huddle with Republicans, but they weren’t able to broker a deal.

A White House official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, backed up Republicans’ demands for more time and amendments.

“From our perspective, whether they debate this legislation for 14 days or 16 days is not the important thing. The important thing is that this process is moving forward,” the official said.

The official also said Mr. Reid “has a propensity to file cloture.”

“The question is does Senator Reid want to do things to bring about accomplishment or does he want to do things to bring about political attack? That is the kind of statement that is purely political,” the official said.

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, questioned the urgency of finishing immigration to get to the nonbinding Gonzales vote. Mr. Reid, though, said as important as immigration may be in Washington, it was not what his constituents were talking about.

Some Republicans said they were convinced none of their amendments would have a chance to pass.

“The fix is in already,” said Sen. John Thune, South Dakota Republican, who said he couldn’t have voted for the bill in its current form.

Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican, said the bill has actually gotten worse since the debate started, both through Democrat-sponsored amendments that have passed and through Republican amendments that have been defeated.

One of those came yesterday, when the Senate rejected an amendment to make the administration secure the border and prove it is enforcing laws now on the books before giving illegal aliens legal status. The amendment, sponsored by Mr. DeMint and Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, would have required the president to certify that he is enforcing existing immigration laws before he could go ahead with the rest of the bill.

Mr. Coburn said the bill suffers from the same problem as the 1986 amnesty, which delivered on the amnesty but never followed through on tougher enforcement.

“There is no assurance in this bill that this is not a repeat of 1986,” Mr. Coburn said.

Among the laws Mr. Coburn wanted to make the president enforce were last year’s law calling for fencing along 700 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border; a mid-1990s law calling for tracking of all visitors through the US-VISIT system; and following through on requiring immigrants’ sponsors to make sure aliens do not become a financial burden on the nation.

His amendment was defeated 54-42. One of those who voted against it was Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, Texas Republican, who said she wanted to vote for tougher enforcement but feared the fencing might be built without community input from Texans [-] an issue that has popped up among her constituents.

Mr. Schumer disputed Republicans’ arguments that they aren’t having a chance to change the bill, saying they’ve done a good job of making Democrats take difficult and politically chancy votes.

“Every major substantive vote that they wanted, they’re getting. All the tough votes for us, they’re getting,” he said.

He bristled when asked why Democrats were so divided.

“Let’s not focus on Democrats,” he said.

The bill had already taken a major hit early yesterday morning when the Senate approved a Democrat-sponsored amendment that punched a hole in the middle of the temporary-worker program for future foreign workers.

In a vote that ended after midnight, senators voted 49-48 to end the program after five years — a move that those who crafted the bipartisan deal said cut out the heart of the bargain.

[Bullet] Jon Ward contributed to this report.

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