Senate Deal on Immigration Falters
By RACHEL L. SWARNS
Published: April 7, 2006
WASHINGTON, April 6 — Senate leaders reached agreement Thursday on a broad,
bipartisan compromise that would put the vast majority of the nation's
estimated 11 million illegal immigrants on a path to citizenship, but its
prospects for passage grew more uncertain as Republicans and Democrats
clashed late into the night over parliamentary procedure.
Both sides said that without a quick resolution of the differences they
would not have a vote on the final legislation before Congress leaves for
its spring recess on Friday, raising the possibility that the painstakingly
negotiated compromise might unravel as it is exposed to intense political
scrutiny during the two-week Congressional break.
The plan would create a temporary worker program that would allow 325,000
foreigners to fill jobs in the United States each year. And, if passed, it
would mark the most sweeping immigration accord in two decades.
The late-night battle burst into the open many hours after Senate leaders
had resolved their substantive differences over the thorny question of
legalization. Conservatives, who condemned the compromise as little more
than amnesty for lawbreakers, sought to offer amendments to the bill. But
Democrats refused to allow votes on the amendments, saying they were
intended to delay the process and gut the legislation.
And as members of the two parties took to the Senate floor to accuse each
other of trying to derail the legislation, negotiators warned that the
failure to resolve the procedural disagreements was jeopardizing what
everyone described as a substantive agreement.
"The fact that we did not act tonight is a huge blow," said Senator John
McCain, Republican of Arizona, and a main architect of the deal.
Under the Senate agreement, illegal immigrants who have lived in the United
States for five years or more, about seven million people, would eventually
be granted citizenship if they remained employed, had background checks,
paid fines and back taxes and learned English.
Illegal immigrants who have lived here for two to five years, about three
million people, would have to travel to a United States border crossing and
apply for a temporary work visa. They would be eligible for permanent
residency and citizenship over time, but they would have to wait several
years longer for it.
Illegal immigrants who have been here less than two years, about one million
people, would be required to leave the country altogether. They could apply
for spots in the temporary worker program, but they would not be guaranteed
President Bush praised the Senate's efforts and urged lawmakers "to work
hard and get the bill done" before the recess.
And Republican and Democratic leaders, who had battled so bitterly on
Wednesday that an agreement seemed in jeopardy, stood side by side on
Thursday morning, hailing the deal as a historic decision that would enhance
national security by bringing illegal immigrants out of the shadows while
meeting the nation's needs for labor.
Flanked by more than a dozen Republican and Democratic lawmakers, Senator
Bill Frist of Tennessee, the majority leader, stood before a crush of
television cameras on Thursday morning and called the compromise "a huge
But as the day wore on, tensions began to rise as Republicans insisted that
the Democrats allow a vote on several of their amendments.
One amendment would require the Department of Homeland Security to certify
that the border was secure before creating a guest worker program or
granting legal status to illegal immigrants. Another would have the
legalization program bar illegal immigrants who had deportation orders or
had been convicted of a felony or three misdemeanors. Democratic critics of
the proposals said they were intended to ensure that the legalization
process would never be implemented.
Republican supporters of the compromise, including Mr. McCain, said he and
others would easily vote down such amendments if they were brought to a
Meanwhile, Democrats said they were still awaiting detailed assurances from
Mr. Frist and others that Republicans would defend the agreement in the face
of strong conservative opposition when House and Senate negotiators sit down
to reconcile their bills.
Any immigration bill that passes the Senate must first be reconciled with
the tough border security bill that passed the House in December. And House
conservatives warned on Thursday that they would reject the Senate
compromise. Republicans and Democrats alike agreed that the compromise
measure would pass easily if lawmakers were allowed to vote for it. But
parliamentary procedures allow even a small number of senators to prevent a
vote from occurring before the spring recess.
"Here we are now and we have made absolutely no progress," said Mr. Frist,
taking to the Senate floor.
Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader, countered that
Republicans seemed intent on bogging down the process with countless
amendments. "Republicans seem intent on delaying and defeating this
compromise," Mr. Reid said.
In recent weeks, both parties have been under pressure to pass legislation
that would resolve the fate of the 11 million or so illegal immigrants in
the United States. President Bush has raised the issue, business groups have
lobbied fiercely for it, and tens of thousands of immigrants and their
supporters nationwide have poured into the streets, reflecting the growing
political muscle of Hispanics.
But the debate has deeply divided the Republican Party, and conservatives
warned on Thursday that the Senate compromise sounded too similar to the
amnesty enacted by President Ronald Reagan in 1986, which granted legal
status to nearly three million illegal immigrants.
"This compromise would repeat the mistakes of the past, but on a much larger
scale because 12 million illegal immigrants would still be placed on an
easier path to citizenship," said Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas.