WASHINGTON -- Republicans will go into the elections with a message that they've made great strides fighting illegal immigration, including authorizing a fence along one-third of the U.S.-Mexico border and making a $1.2 billion down payment on it.
Among its final tasks before leaving to campaign, the Senate on Friday night passed and sent to President Bush a bill authorizing 700 new miles of fencing on the southern border. No one knows how much it will cost, but a separate bill also on the way to the White House makes a $1.2 billion down payment on it. A 14-mile segment of fence under construction in San Diego is costing $126.5 million.
The fence bill was passed by the House two weeks ago. The Senate vote on it Friday night was 80-19.
In addition to money for staring work on the fence, a homeland security bill Congress was completing Friday includes $380 million to hire 1,500 more Border Patrol agents and money to build detention facilities to hold 6,700 more illegal immigrants until they can be deported.
"We have made giant steps in terms of our ability to control illegal immigration," House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, told reporters.
The fence bill became House Republicans' immigration focus in September after they abandoned President Bush's call to bring millions of illegal immigrants into the American mainstream.
In addition to the money in the Homeland Security spending bill, Boehner cited Bush's deployment of the National Guard on the border and more frequent arrests of illegal immigrants at work sites.
"The perception that has been painted mistakenly is that the United States government, our Congress is not delivering to the American people on a huge problem that's out there," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn. "We're active."
Democrats and immigration advocates say Republicans can hardly claim victory.
House Republicans failed to win measures for deporting immigrant gang members and empowering local police to enforce immigration laws. Their biggest obstacle turned out to be another Republican, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said the border security achievements trumpeted by Republicans don't measure up to the more comprehensive reforms her party backed. What the GOP calls achievements fall "very far short of what Democrats have proposed over and over and over again," she said.
After a debate that stretched over three months, the Senate in May passed a sweeping immigration bill that combined tougher border enforcement measures with new guest worker programs and a plan to give millions of illegal immigrants already in the U.S. a shot at citizenship.
Despite Bush's ringing endorsement of the measure, the House would have no part of it, sticking to the bill it passed five months earlier that would treat illegal immigrants and people who offer them aid as felons.
Rather than negotiate a compromise with the Senate, Republican leaders plucked out many provisions of the House bill for new votes in both the House and Senate over the past two weeks.
"It's been two years of high visibility, high volume debate in terms of which way to go in the immigration system," said Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum. In the end the debate ended in a tie, he said.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., called the fence "a bumper sticker solution for a complex problem."
"It's a feel-good plan that will have little effect in the real world," he said. "We all know what this is about. It may be good politics, but it's bad immigration policy. That's not what Americans want."
Sens. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., made a 11th-hour appeal to colleagues to include in the fence bill a measure to help the agriculture industry, which relies heavily on undocumented workers.
Those workers have become harder to find because of increased border enforcement and availability of jobs for the workers in construction and other industries, they said. Consumers ultimately will pay the price for that at the grocery store, they added.
"Pickers are few and the growers blame Congress," Craig said, reading a news headline. "The growers ought to blame Congress. They ought to blame a government that has been dysfunctional in an area of immigration that has been problem for decades."