Deal on immigration bill collapses amid partisan fight

Senator Edward M. Kennedy read from a book on immigration by his brother President Kennedy with Senator John McCain in Washington yesterday.
By Rick Klein
Globe Staff / April 8, 2006
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WASHINGTON -- Senate Republicans blocked a comprehensive immigration bill from moving forward yesterday, as a compromise that was celebrated a day earlier collapsed in a partisan fight that leaves the prospects of a sweeping reform measure in doubt.

The move blunted momentum toward the passage of a bill to deal with the approximately 11 million people living illegally in the United States.

With Congress on an extended break, it delays any Senate action on an immigration overhaul for at least two weeks -- a high-stakes issue in a congressional election year -- and lawmakers will face intense pressure from all sides as they return to their home states for the break.

The stalemate was a bitter pill for senators who announced a breakthrough in negotiations on Thursday and confidently predicted swift passage for their bill.

Still, its chief architects, Senators Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, and John McCain, Republican of Arizona, said they would keep fighting for a final comprehensive bill that both tightens borders and sets up new paths to citizenship.

''The politics got ahead of policy on this in spite of everyone's efforts to separate this out," Kennedy said, adding that ''there's plenty of blame to go around" among members of both political parties. ''I'm disappointed, not discouraged. I think we came a long way. I've been around long enough not to let me get too optimistic too soon on this sort of thing."

The compromise collapsed in part because of conservative objections to the bill's key provision: allowing illegal residents to earn legal residency and citizenship, which critics assail as ''amnesty" for lawbreakers. But there were objections, including plans for border security and a ''guest worker" program.

The last-minute wrangling capped a tense week in Congress that reflected deep splits within the Republican Party, which controls the House of Representatives and Senate.

In the House, GOP leaders pulled their budget plan because they lacked the votes for new cuts to healthcare and other programs.

In the Senate yesterday, conservative Republicans demanded changes to the immigration deal announced Thursday, despite the fact that President Bush and the Senate majority leader, Bill Frist, support the measure.

The conservatives wanted to make it harder for undocumented immigrants to become citizens. Some also wanted to sidetrack a proposal that would invite immigrants into the country until the nation makes progress in securing its borders.

Democrats, fearing that carefully negotiated provisions would be picked apart, refused to allow votes on the Republicans' amendments.

GOP senators -- including many who supported the compromise -- then joined six Democrats yesterday morning to stop a procedural vote that would have moved the bill ahead.

That left supporters well short of the votes they needed to keep the bill on track. And, a day after a rare show of unity in hailing the bill, Republicans and Democrats blamed each other for the holdup.

''I see little progress possible on this bill because of the obstruction" by Democrats, said Frist, Republican of Tennessee, who demanded that the party give Republicans a chance to vote on amendments. ''In all likelihood [we] are not going to be able to address a problem that directly affects the American people."

But Democrats accused the Republicans of caving in to conservatives and reneging on a deal.

''This is no place for stonewalling or obstruction," said the Senate minority leader, Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat. ''Yet that's where we are."

On Thursday, Frist, Reid, and a bipartisan group of influential senators proudly announced what Frist called a ''major breakthrough" on immigration overhaul legislation. The compromise would have increased border security and provided a three-tiered path to legal status and citizenship for nearly all undocumented immigrants -- but no guarantees for newer arrivals with less than two years' residency.

Frist, however, appeared to have underestimated how strongly some fellow Republicans opposed the measure. Conservatives -- and even some members of Frist's Senate leadership team -- threatened to erect procedural roadblocks and load the bill with amendments if their concerns weren't addressed.

''New programs that attract people to come here illegally will only compound the problem," said Senator Johnny Isakson, Republican of Georgia. ''If we do not secure our borders first, we will only accelerate the volume of illegals entering our nation."

Democrats feared that amendments would weaken the core provisions of the bill: helping make legal the majority of undocumented immigrants who are in the country and a new guest worker program for those in other countries.

''Some Republicans were unable or unwilling to support those bipartisan compromises that, ironically, President Bush and majority leader Frist endorsed just yesterday," said Senator Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Still, the White House blamed Reid for the delay. Bush spokesman Scott McClellan said legislators need a more complete debate on such a complicated issue as immigration.

''Unfortunately, the Senate minority leader prevented voices from being heard and amendments from being considered," McClellan said. ''He is preventing comprehensive immigration reform from moving forward."

Immigration appears to be a more politically nettlesome issue for Republicans than for Democrats; the GOP is struggling to reach consensus on the issue. Party leaders have proposed a broad range of solutions, ranging from a massive fence along the Mexican border to allowing undocumented immigrants to become US citizens.

Nevertheless, Arlen Specter, Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, ascribed the standoff on the compromise bill to simple politics. Democratic leaders are dragging their feet because they realize it's a politically explosive issue for Republicans, he said.

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

The compromise's failure delighted Republicans who want hard-line solutions to stop illegal immigration. Representative Tom Tancredo, a Colorado Republican, called it a ''good day for America" and vowed to use the two-week break to work for stronger border enforcement.

''The Senate -- in a rare moment of clarity -- rejected its amnesty-now, enforcement-later approach to immigration," Tancredo said. ''Hopefully, listening to their electorate will chasten these senators so that they'll put amnesty away for good."

But supporters of the bill noted that the crux of the agreement -- the need to legalize undocumented immigrants living in the United States -- remains intact in the Senate. They said they would continue to work with their colleagues in the coming weeks, in the hope of reviving the measure in later this month or in early May.

''We know where the votes are in the Senate," Kennedy said.

McCain said no amount of pressure on lawmakers can change the reality of the nation's broken immigration system.

''It's not going away because the problems are still there," McCain said.

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