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Fewer than 20 senators are publicly committed to supporting the immigration deal that hits the Senate floor today while nearly 40 are already opposed or have serious concerns, underscoring how difficult it will be for President Bush and his allies to craft a coalition that can pass the bill.
A Washington Times survey of Senate offices and public comments after the deal was announced Thursday found an additional 32 senators who said they cannot even take a position yet — a result of the fact that the deal was written in secret by a dozen senators and the Bush administration, wasn’t even finalized until yesterday and still hasn’t reached many Senate offices.
“I did not agree to any immigration deal and was not part of the negotiations,” said Sen. Jim Bunning, Kentucky Republican and a likely opponent. “From what I have heard about the bill, it gives amnesty to the estimated 12.5 million illegal immigrants in this country.”
Senators will be asked to make their first vote on the measure today, on whether to begin debating the bill. It will require 60 votes to pass, and leaders of both parties are urging their members to vote for it, so the debate can at least begin.
Opposition comes from the left and the right — and both sides are vowing to offer amendments to try to move the bill. What is not clear is whether the two sides will be willing to team up to scuttle the bill.
The Times survey found 17 senators supporting the current bill and another two who lean toward supporting it; 17 who oppose it; 22 who have concerns; and 32 senators who are still reviewing it. Nine senators’ positions couldn’t be determined, and Sen. Tim Johnson, South Dakota Democrat, has been absent all year because of a medical situation.
Those involved in the negotiations are urging fellow senators to take a close look at the bill, arguing that it strikes the right balance between enforcement, realism and humanitarian concerns. They also said they think it will pass.
Sen. Arlen Specter, one of the Republicans who helped craft the deal, said it’s the best they could do.
“It will treat the 12 million undocumented immigrants in a constructive way. It is not amnesty. They’ll have to pay a fine. They’ll have to earn their way to citizenship,” he said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “It’s better than what we have now.”
Those on the left want to preserve current family immigration preferences and scale back the guest-worker program, which would allow 400,000 new temporary workers a year. Under the current bill, they could work for two years, then have to return home for a year, and could renew for three work periods.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid this weekend said he will insist that the bill’s guest-worker provision be slashed from 400,000 per year down to 100,000 per year.
“I don’t want a program that is a funnel for cheap labor,” Mr. Reid, Nevada Democrat, said, according to the Reno (Nev.) Gazette-Journal. Mr. Reid said the 400,000 number “will not remain in the bill.”
Meanwhile, those on the right oppose the instant probationary status and path to citizenship for the estimated 12 million to 20 million illegal aliens in the country. Some have also raised questions about whether the Department of Homeland Security can handle the new security measures and the massive legalization program.
Republicans are hearing — in some instances, quite loudly — from their core voters how much those voters dislike the bill.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, was booed at his state’s Republican convention this weekend for his support for the bill, while presidential hopeful former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, was cheered for saying he opposed it — even though Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the top Democratic negotiator, says Mr. Romney used to back it.
Across the state line in Georgia, Sen. Saxby Chambliss, one of the secret negotiators, was also booed at that state’s Republican convention, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Meanwhile, Republicans’ chief negotiator in the closed-door sessions, Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, wrote a column for the Arizona Republic newspaper yesterday saying he won’t support the bill if major changes are made during the floor debate.
“If the consensus we reach is not accurately reflected in the final legislative language, or is seriously undercut by amendments in the Senate or House, it will lose support, including from me,” he wrote.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell yesterday pleaded for more time to debate the bill than the one week Democrats have allotted.
“This is not a one-week bill. This is a two-week bill,” the Kentucky Republican said on ABC’s “This Week” program. “It’s got to go on for at least a couple of weeks to give everybody the opportunity in the Senate to feel like they’ve had their chance to offer amendments.”
But Mr. McConnell repeatedly ducked the central question, posed to him four times by show host George Stephanopoulos, refusing to say whether he thought the bill was an amnesty.
The Republican leader’s reluctance to take a stance might be the product of a sharply divided Senate Republican Conference.
Seven Republicans, including the party’s chairman, Sen. Mel Martinez of Florida, Mr. Chambliss and Mr. Kyl, the Senate Republican Conference chairman, were at the press conference announcing the bill. But its most vehement opponents are also Republicans, including Sens. Jeff Sessions of Alabama and Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, who voted for the 1986 amnesty and says he won’t make that mistake again.
Mr. McConnell did vote for last year’s bill and has said he thinks this bill is better.
Mr. Reid’s spokesman said yesterday the two leaders will talk today to figure out how to proceed, but Mr. Reid “believes we need to move as quickly as possible to pass tough, fair and practical comprehensive immigration reform.”
Sean Lengell contributed to this report.