Senate Democrats managed Thursday to block deployment of 6,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border, but the proposal still garnered a majority of senators, showing widespread support for a border-security-first strategy and underscoring why President Obama is having difficulty trying to win an immigration-legalization bill.
The vote flustered Democrats, who seemed uncertain how to handle the proposal and were reluctant to defy Mr. Obama, who just this week proposed that a much smaller 1,200-troop force be deployed.
In the end, 12 Democrats joined 39 Republicans in voting for the deployment - though that still fell nine votes shy of the 60-vote supermajority needed for passage.
The border-security debate was the key fight as the Senate debated the $59 billion emergency war-spending bill to fund Mr. Obama’s Afghanistan troop surge.
Late Thursday, the spending bill passed 67-28, sending it on to be reconciled with a House version.
But that was not before senators defeated a Democratic effort to force Mr. Obama to produce a timetable for withdrawal and Republican efforts to force cuts elsewhere in the budget to pay for the added spending.
“First and foremost, this bill provides the resources needed to support and protect our troops serving in harms way,” said Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
With Democrats holding a giant advantage in the Senate, Republicans were never likely to garner the 60 votes needed to pass the National Guard amendment. But that made the symbolism of the vote all the more significant - a fact that was underscored by Sen. Charles E. Schumer’s pleas on the Senate floor to his colleagues not to defect and vote with Republicans.
“The president’s plan is smart and focused,” the New York Democrat said on the floor.
He told his colleagues to reject three Republican amendments that would have deployed 6,000 guard troops, siphoned more money to federal and local law enforcement on the border and boosted a program that jails illegal immigrants for a short time rather than immediately releasing them across the border, where they often just try again to cross.
In attacking the program to jail illegal immigrants, Mr. Schumer said it wouldn’t stop the flow of illegal immigrants but would instead waste money.
“It will pay for their food, their health care, their recreation time, their reading material for long periods of time,” he said.
Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, started laughing at that charge.
“Is he making this up?” Mr. McCain was overheard saying to fellow Arizona Republican Sen. Jon Kyl, the amendment’s author. Just a minute earlier, Mr. Kyl had told the chamber the incarceration program has a 94 percent success rate where it has been tried.
The incarceration and law enforcement support amendments won 54 votes each, short of the 60 votes needed to pass.
Immigrant rights groups said the amendments’ failure was a victory and said they hoped it clears room for the Senate to begin debate on a broader legalization bill.
“Our country does not need more political theater and grandstanding. We’ve already spent $17 billion on enforcement over the last eight years, with nothing to show for it,” said Janet Murguia, president of the National Council of La Raza. “Throwing more money into the same strategies that have given us no results is simply not a cost-effective approach. Both parties and the president know full well that meaningful and effective border strategy can only be achieved through comprehensive immigration reform.”
But the votes highlighted an unease among senators whom Mr. Obama has asked to pursue a broad legalization bill rather than a border-security-first approach.
One telling statistic is how many Democrats in tough re-election campaigns voted for the 6,000-troop deployment, including Sens. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, Michael Bennet of Colorado and Barbara Boxer of California. Mrs. Boxer’s California counterpart, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a fellow Democrat, initially voted against the deployment but switched her vote to favor the troops after talking with Mrs. Boxer.
Mr. Schumer was seen lobbying both of them, as well as some of the other Democrats who ended up voting for the deployment.
All but one Republican, Sen. George V. Voinovich of Ohio, supported the 6,000-troop proposal.
At a press conference Thursday, Mr. Obama defended his 1,200-troop plan, saying it was drawn up last year, not as a response to recent activity in Arizona.
He again pressed lawmakers to join him in trying to pass a bill that would legalize illegal immigrants and put them on a multistep path to citizenship.
However, recognizing unease among some members of his own party with that plan, he said he’ll have to rely on Republican votes to pass a bill.
“I don’t even need you to meet me halfway; meet me a quarter of the way,” he said. “I’ll bring the majority of Democrats to a smart, sensible, comprehensive immigration reform bill. But I’m going to have to have some help, given the rules of the Senate, where a simple majority is not enough.”
Mr. Obama also defended his Afghanistan surge, saying the country needs to remember that the Taliban harbored al Qaeda when the Sept. 11 attacks happened.
“They absolutely are a threat to us,” he said. “They’re a significant threat to us. I wouldn’t be deploying young men and women into harm’s way if I didn’t think that they were an absolute threat to us.”
A group of Democrats led by Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin offered an amendment on the spending bill to demand that the president lay out a nonbinding timetable for engagement in Afghanistan. But that effort was rejected overwhelmingly, 80-18.
The Senate also rejected two efforts by Sen Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, to cut elsewhere in the federal budget to pay for the spending. The cuts were defeated by votes of 50-47 and 53-45.