Friday, June 8, 2007

Senators react to collapse

The immigration “grand bargain” imploded in the Senate last night under a Republican-led filibuster, with the bill under attack from both sides and collapsing of its own weight.

In two votes yesterday Republicans blocked Democratic leaders’ bid to end to the debate and hold a final vote on the bill — each time joined by more than 10 Democrats. The vote 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 after the 2006 Republican loss of Congress.

In last night’s final showdown, Democrats couldn’t even muster a majority of the Senate, losing 50-45, 15 votes shy of the 60 needed to break the filibuster.

“The headline is going to be ‘Democrats vote for the bill, Republicans vote against it, the president fails again,’ ” said Majority Leader Harry Reid, 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 on Monday 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 complained Democrats were shutting them out from offering enough amendments, and a filibuster was their only option. Still, they said they had been close to a deal when Mr. Reid pulled the plug.

“If we had just gone on a couple more days, I think this bill would have been completed. But it’s apparent to me the majority leader just decided to give up,” said Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, who said Democrats were afraid to take some tough votes.

Republicans said they were winnowing down the more than 200 amendments filed to a list of about a dozen from their members, and said they told Mr. Reid it could have been ready within a few days.

But Democrats said they had given the bill two weeks and Republicans were constantly moving the goalposts.

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.

The loss hit some Republicans hard.

Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican and a 2008 presidential candidate who had invested a lot of his political capital in the issue, refused to talk to reporters as he left the Senate floor.

“I don’t have anything to say. I apologize, but I don’t have anything to say,” he said as he ducked inside the senators-only elevator. Mr. McCain was one of the seven Republicans who sided with Democrats to break the filibuster.

Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, who was in a room off the Senate floor during the vote trying to wrangle Republican votes, also refused to answer reporters’ questions afterward.

But Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican and another who voted to break the filibuster, said he will try to force the bill back onto the schedule.

“We could see the finish line,” he said. “At the end of the day, there’s a small group of people, probably on both sides, that want to make sure we don’t succeed. And we’ll find a way around that.”

Mr. Reid left open the possibility of returning to the bill again this year, but Democrats said that will depend on Mr. Bush.

“When the president calls Harry Reid and says I can get some more votes for you, we’ll come back to it. But until that time we can’t,” he said. “They said he made some phone calls, but he could only deliver six or seven votes.”

It’s not clear what will change in the next weeks or months. A Washington Times survey after the “grand bargain” was announced three weeks ago found few supporters or opponents, with most senators saying they had concerns or hadn’t had any time to read the bill. Since then opposition has only grown — fueled in part by the reception senators got while home last week on vacation.

The immigration issue has deeply split the Republican Party, with Mr. Bush accusing some in his own party of trying to “frighten people” and conservative blogs saying Mr. Bush abandoned them. Some even talked of impeachment, and the national party’s fundraising took a hit many attributed to the president’s stance on this issue.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, said yesterday’s vote was a good indication of how much opposition there was among Republicans to passing any bill.

“I don’t think the vote on final passage would have been much different,” he said.

But with 50 votes in favor of a filibuster, including 11 Democrats and one Democrat-leaning independent, it underscored just how unpopular the compromise was with Democrats as well.

After the vote, Mr. Reid praised the seven Republican “profiles in courage” who bucked their own party, prompting Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, to dryly note that more Democrats voted against their leaders.

“I want to express my admiration for the 12 Democrats who voted against cloture for being profiles in courage,” he said with a smirk.

Several said after the vote that the bill was cobbled together and had too many problems.

Republicans blamed the bill’s origin behind closed doors and the fact that it never went through the committee process for many of its problems. Several said they would be in meetings over the past few weeks and point out a problem that even Democrats or administration officials agreed needed fixing.

“That’s what the amendment process is for,” Mr. Cornyn said, though he said his party didn’t have much luck fixing the problems on the Senate floor. “What happened is people hunkered down, and they began to support the bill and fend off amendments in sort of a reflexive, defensive maneuver.”

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.

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.

Earlier this week, the deal suffered another blow when the Senate passed an amendment from Mr. Cornyn that allowed government agencies to share information to make it easier to deport those who apply but are deemed ineligible for legalization.

Also yesterday, 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 was defeated 54-42.

Among the laws it would have required 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.

As he walked out of the Capitol after last night’s vote, Minority Whip Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican, was critical of some in both parties, saying Mr. Reid pulled the trigger too quickly but also blaming Republicans who he said were never going to vote for a bill.

Throughout the day, he had challenged senators to answer whether they were “mice or men.” As he left he called out to reporters: “We are a bunch of rodents.”

• Jon Ward contributed to this report.

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