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Immigration overhaul hits roadblock

Saturday, April 8, 2006

The bill would have boosted border security and regulated the entry of foreign workers.

WASHINGTON -- The Senate came up empty on immigration. Now come more public demonstrations.

Landmark legislation offering eventual citizenship to millions of illegal immigrants suffered a potentially fatal blow Friday in the Senate, the latest in a series of election-year setbacks for President Bush and the Republicans who control Congress.

"Politics got ahead of policy on this," lamented Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., an assessment that belied the partisan recriminations from all sides.

Hailed as a bipartisan breakthrough less than 24 hours earlier, the bill fell victim to internal disputes in both parties and political maneuvering. On the key vote, only 38 senators, all Democrats, lined up in support. That was 22 short of the 60 needed, and left the legislation in limbo as lawmakers left the Capitol for a two-week break.

Supporters of the measure expressed hope for its resurrection, particularly with large public demonstrations planned over the next several days.

"We have an agreement. It's not going away," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who earlier had estimated more than 60 senators favor the measure. Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, pledged to have legislation ready for debate in the Senate within two weeks of the lawmakers' return.

Majority Leader Bill Frist, his party plagued by divisions, stopped short of a commitment to bring another immigration bill to the floor by year's end. "I intend to," the Tennessee Republican said, but added it would depend on the schedule, already crowded with other legislation.

The gridlock over immigration legislation capped an exceptionally trying week for Republicans, who face unexpectedly stiff challenges from Democrats for control of the House and Senate in the midterm elections.

House GOP leaders abruptly put off plans Thursday to vote on a budget for the coming year when leaders concluded they lacked a majority. The House-Senate leadership also gave up hopes of clearing a tax cut before the April 17 tax filing deadline.

An Associated Press-Ipsos poll showed Bush's public support at new lows for his handling of Iraq and the war on terror as well as overall job performance.

And former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, under indictment in Texas and linked to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, announced plans to resign and then blasted his own party's performance. "We don't have an agreed agenda -- breaking up our leadership has taken its toll," he told one group of reporters.

The immigration bill would have provided for stronger border security, regulated the future entry of foreign workers and created a complex new set of regulations for the estimated 11 million immigrants in the country illegally. Officials said an estimated 9 million of them, those who could show they had been in the United States for more than two years, would eventually become eligible for citizenship under the proposal.

Frist accused Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader, of "putting a stranglehold" on the Senate by refusing to permit votes on more than three Republican amendments.

"It's not gone forward because there's a political advantage for Democrats not to have an immigration bill," asserted Specter.

Reid and others swiftly rebutted the claim. But Kennedy, who had seemed more eager than the Nevadan all week to find a compromise, declined several chances to offer a strong defense of his party's leader.

"I respect Bill Frist, but his position on this matter simply defies logic. ... He needed the courage to move forward," said Reid.

And Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, second-ranking Democrat, said late Thursday night it would be "game, set, match over" if Republicans failed to put up enough votes to advance the bill their leader supported.

Republicans, including those who favored the immigration bill, decided in advance they would cast protest votes to emphasize their opposition to Reid's tactics. The Democratic leader has prevented votes on all but a few non-controversial amendments since debate began on the bill more than a week ago. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas and other opponents expressed frustration that they were unable to gain votes on proposals to toughen enforcement or to leave immigration policy unchanged until the border had been made secure.

All week, internal party divisions were on unusual public display.

Frist, a potential presidential contender for 2008, initially advanced a bill largely limited to border security. He then embraced Bush's concept of a broader measure including provisions relating to illegal immigrants. But in doing so, he left behind GOP conservatives. Sens. Jon Kyl of Arizona and Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, both members of the leadership, openly opposed the bill. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, the second and third-ranking members of the leadership, played modest roles in the public debate.

Kyl as well as Cornyn, Jeff Sessions of Alabama and others criticized the bill as an amnesty measure for lawbreakers.

Democrats had their own divisions, principally between Kennedy and others who favored negotiating a compromise and those who were more reluctant.

Reid seemed to vacillate, signaling opposition to an emerging compromise Wednesday night, then joining Frist at a news conference on Thursday to say an agreement was within grasp. Then, within hours, he insisted that Frist tell conservatives their ability to seek changes would be severely limited.

In private as well as public, Reid and Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, who heads the party's campaign effort, said they did not want to expose rank-and-file Democrats to votes that would force them to choose between border security and immigrant rights, only to wind up with legislation that would be eviscerated in future negotiations with the House.

Outside the Senate, several Democratic strategists concluded that the best politics was to allow the bill to die, leaving Republicans with a failed initiative in the Senate at a time when the GOP in the House had passed a measure making illegal immigrants subject to felony charges.


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