your connection to The Boston Globe

Immigration deal survives challenges

Senators reject several changes

WASHINGTON -- A proposed immigration overhaul narrowly survived strong Senate challenges yesterday, boosting its backers' hopes that the fiercely debated legislation might soon win passage and advance to the House.

Senators first turned back a Republican bid to reduce the number of illegal immigrants who could gain lawful status. Hours later, they rejected a Democrat's effort to postpone the bill's shift to an emphasis on education and skills among visa applicants as opposed to family connections.

Both amendments were seen as potentially fatal blows to the fragile coalition backing the bill, which remains under attack from the right and left. The bill -- which would tighten borders and give many of the country's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants a pathway to legal status -- is a priority for President Bush.

The long day and night of votes contained setbacks for the coalition's leaders, however. They did not defeat a Republican proposal to give law enforcement agents access to rejected visa applications, which could lead to the arrest of some illegal immigrants who otherwise might escape detection.

On balance, however, the coalition's "grand bargainers" thought they had withstood their toughest challenges. "This means people want a bill very badly," said Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican.

The Senate voted 51 to 46 to reject a proposal by Senator John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, to bar criminals -- including those ordered by judges to be deported -- from gaining legal status. Democrats siphoned support from Cornyn's proposal by winning adoption of a rival version that would bar a more limited set of criminals, including certain gang members and sex offenders, from gaining legalization. The Senate backed that amendment, offered by Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, 66 to 32.

The Senate also rejected a plan by Senator Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, that bill supporters called a "killer amendment." It would have delayed the bill's shift in favor of attracting foreign workers with needed skills as opposed to keeping families together. Menendez won 53 votes, seven shy of 60 needed under a procedural rule. Senator Jon Kyl, an Arizona Republican and a chief backer of the bill, said most of the applicants Menendez wanted to help are so far back in line it would be decades before they could be processed.