WASHINGTON — The Senate voted Wednesday to exclude illegal immigrants convicted of a felony or three misdemeanors from a chance at remaining in the United States under what critics say is an amnesty program.
The unanimous vote on an amendment that before Easter had been considered a “poison pill” provided added momentum for broad immigration bill that would give legal status to millions of illegal immigrants and put many of them on a path toward citizenship.
The amendment by two of the bill’s leading opponents, Republican Sens. Jon Kyl of Arizona and John Cornyn of Texas, was softened Tuesday in negotiations with the legislation’s supporters. The sponsors agreed to include exceptions for hardship cases and those who didn’t know a deportation order had been issued for them, winning the additional support.
“We want to keep those who could harm us, the criminal element, out,” said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., one of the authors of the bill. “Those who could benefit us ought to remain.”
Critics of the legislation aren’t giving up, however, and planned to keep trying to reshape the bill.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., offered an amendment Wednesday that would erect more fencing along the nearly 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexican border, an idea similar to one in an enforcement-only bill passed by the House in December.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said Wednesday that lawmakers increasingly realize the need for a comprehensive plan that goes beyond trying to stop people at the border.
“If you just try to build a wall 30 feet high and 2,000 miles long, it will be insufficient. People will go up over it, around it, in order to get a job in this country,” Frist said on CBS’ “The Early Show.”
Meanwhile, immigration advocates poured into Washington by the thousands to lobby lawmakers and hold a late afternoon rally within site of the Capitol and the White House.
The Senate bill authorizes additional spending on border security, a guest worker program, an eventual opportunity at citizenship for most of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the country, and tougher enforcement of laws prohibiting hiring of illegal workers. Senate passage appears likely by Memorial Day.
Opponents of granting legal status to most of the nation’s illegal immigrants planned other amendments but said the big fight will occur when negotiators try to merge the Senate bill with the House’s enforcement-only legislation.
“Ultimately we all understand where this bill is going to be written. It’s going to be written in the conference committee between the House and the Senate,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.
House Republicans remained unyielding in their opposition to legalization.
“Thinly veiled attempts to promote amnesty cannot be tolerated,” said Rep. Tom Price of Georgia. “While America is a nation of immigrants, we are also a nation of laws, and rewarding those who break our laws not only dishonors the hard work of those who came here legally but does nothing to fix our current situation.”
Bill backers on Tuesday defeated two amendments that would have gutted the Senate bill. In votes that crossed party lines, the Senate rejected 55-40 a requirement that the border be secured before other immigration changes are made. They also voted 69-28 to scuttle a Democratic amendment to exclude foreigners and recent illegal immigrants from a new guest worker program.
The Senate also approved on a voice vote an amendment reducing the number of foreigners who could participate in the guest worker program annually from at least 325,000 to no more than 200,000. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., also won approval for his proposal to add 1,000 more Border Patrol agents this year, 100 helicopters and 250 power boats.
President Bush gave the debate momentum by announcing in a prime-time speech Monday a plan to deploy 6,000 National Guard troops to southwestern border states to support the Border Patrol.
The proposal to use Guard troops in the four states bordering Mexico drew mixed reaction in Congress. Pentagon officials insisted the duty would not overtax the guard or interfere with preparations for combat, but some in Congress worried it would stretch the Guard too thin.
Bush’s new press secretary, Tony Snow, said Wednesday he thinks a compromise can be reached on the complex legislation.
“I think the answer is yes,” Snow said when asked on NBC’s “Today” show if a deal can be achieved. “In point of fact, what the president is proposing in terms of border security is more aggressive” than what the House has proposed, he said.
The Associated Press and MSNBC's Mike Viqueira contributed to this report.