Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The Senate yesterday voted to preserve a guest-worker program as part of the immigration “grand bargain,” in the first test of the bipartisan coalition that is backing the bill.

The vote went straight to the heart of the debate over jobs and competition between immigrants and American workers.

“How about paying a decent wage? You’ll find plenty of people to take these jobs,” said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, North Dakota Democrat. He spearheaded an amendment to eliminate the guest-worker program, which would allow 400,000 temporary workers in the first year and could, Mr. Dorgan said, allow 3.6 million workers in by the 10th year.

He said the program bore “the handprint of those who want to bring in additional cheap labor” and keep wages low.

But Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican, said 50 percent of home-construction jobs in his state used to be filled by illegal aliens because of the housing boom. He said the guest-worker program will cut down on illegal immigration because it “will help relieve the magnet” of those jobs.

The vote was 64-31, with 17 Democrats, 46 Republicans and 1 independent voting to preserve the program. Two Republicans, one independent and 28 Democrats voted to scrap it.

Yesterday’s vote did not test the possibility of conservatives and liberals teaming up to kill the measure. Most Republicans, even those intent on defeating the bill, voted to preserve the guest-worker plan.

Still, it was an important victory to the bill’s backers, who earlier this week appeared to be stunned by vehement opposition from liberal and immigrant rights groups, coupled with expected opposition from conservative and pro-enforcement groups.

“One of the things that I like about this bill is there’s so much disagreement,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat. He said since “no one’s happy” with the bill, they aren’t taking advantage of the process. That, he said, made him optimistic.

“That is how we should build consensus and compromise. And I think this legislation should be able to be approved and passed out of the Senate,” Mr. Reid said.

The guest-worker program isn’t safe yet.

Today, the Senate is expected to debate an amendment slashing the number of participants in the guest-worker program in half. Last year, a similar amendment passed, though workers in that version would have had a direct path to citizenship, unlike the temporary workers in the current bill.

Guest workers would be allowed to apply for a two-years-in, one-year-out program, renewable three times. But they would not have a clear path to citizenship.

At some point during the debate, senators will have a vote on what critics are calling amnesty.

Sen. David Vitter, Louisiana Republican, said he has introduced an amendment to cut out the “Z visa” program, which is the bill’s interim step on the path to citizenship for illegal aliens.

“Z visas are amnesty — pure and simple,” Mr. Vitter said.

The text of the bill was finally submitted late Monday night, four days after 10 senators and two Bush Cabinet secretaries said they had reached a deal on the bill.

That deal has been characterized as the “grand bargain” — in which Republicans accepted a path to citizenship for the estimated 12 million to 20 million illegal aliens in exchange for Democrats accepting changes to the future immigration system, including a guest-worker program and adding a point system for choosing many future immigrants that favors needed skills.

Senators and aides said they expect amendments to try to eliminate the point system and to restore the old family-immigration system.

Even if the bill passes the Senate, it will have to survive the House, where Democratic leaders have said they need substantial Republican support to bring the bill up.

Mr. Kyl yesterday spoke to House Republicans about his bill, but members later said although they respect the senator, he didn’t win any converts.

Several Republicans said Mr. Kyl was stumped when Rep. Elton Gallegly asked when the first person would be deported for breaking the rules under the new bill. Mr. Gallegly said the last amnesty in 1986 had similar tough rules, but prosecutors wouldn’t even consider deporting someone until a third offense.

“That hasn’t changed,” Mr. Gallegly, California Republican, said later in an interview. “The record speaks for itself.”

Business groups lined up to oppose Mr. Dorgan’s effort yesterday. The National Restaurant Association announced it would mark the vote on Mr. Dorgan’s amendment a “key vote” in the association’s legislative scorecard.

But labor unions worked to support Mr. Dorgan.

With so many senators publicly uncommitted on how they will vote on the bill, yesterday’s vote did provide some clues as to which way senators are leaning.

The two 2008 Democratic presidential candidates who were present for the vote — Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware — both supported stripping the guest-worker program.

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