WASHINGTON — The Senate agreed to give millions of illegal immigrants a shot at U.S. citizenship and backed construction of 370 miles of triple-layered fencing along the Mexican border Wednesday, but prospects of the legislation clearing Congress were clouded by a withering attack against President Bush by a prominent House Republican.
Amid increasingly emotional debate over election-year immigration legislation, senators voted 83-16 to add fencing and 500 miles of vehicle barriers along the southern border. It marked the first significant victory in two days for conservatives seeking to place their stamp on the contentious measure.
The prospects were less favorable for their attempt to strip out portions of the legislation that could allow citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants and create new guest worker programs.
Cries of amnesty
The Senate acted in a volatile political environment, as the White House struggled for a second day to ease the concerns of House Republicans who contend that President Bush favors amnesty for illegal immigrants.
Some were not placated.
“Regardless of what the president says, what he is proposing is amnesty,” said Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and the lawmaker who would lead House negotiators in any attempt to draft a compromise immigration bill later this year.
He said Bush had “basically turned his back” on a tough border security bill after encouraging the House to pass it last year.
Sensenbrenner’s blast underscored the deep Republican divisions on immigration and coincided with a clash among GOP senators on the Senate floor.
“This is not amnesty, so let’s get the terms right,” Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska lectured fellow Republicans who condemned the bill. “Come on. Let’s stop the nonsense.”
Vituperative pro and con
“It sort of reminds me of the famous line, ‘Methinks thou dost protest too much,”’ responded Sen. David Vitter, R-La., who repeatedly described the legislation as an amnesty bill for lawbreakers.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., addressing Vitter, said, “Call it a banana if you want to ... to call the process that we require under this legislation amnesty frankly distorts the debate and it’s an unfair interpretation of it.”
The clash erupted after Vitter sought a change in the legislation to strip provisions of the bill allowing for guest worker status.
‘Good fences make good neighbors’
‘Construction of the barrier would send “a signal that open-border days are over. ... Good fences make good neighbors, fences don’t make bad neighbors,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala. He said border areas where barriers already exist have experienced economic improvement and reduced crime.
“What we have here has become a symbol for the right wing in American politics,” countered Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. He said if the proposal passed, “our relationship with Mexico would come down to a barrier between our two countries.”
The Senate labored to complete work by next week on immigration legislation that generally follows an outline Bush set out in a nationally televised speech this week.
The measure includes provisions to strengthen border security, create a new guest worker program and crack down on the hiring of illegal immigrants.
Most controversially, it offers an eventual chance at citizenship for many of the estimated 11 million to 12 million illegal immigrants already in the country. Senate Republicans staged an impromptu, occasionally emotional debate over whether that amounted to amnesty.
Supporters of the Senate measure credited Bush’s prime-time Monday night speech with giving fresh momentum to the effort to pass long-stalled legislation.
Rove to the rescue?
Across the Capitol in the House, the story was different. Republicans pushed through a border security bill last year, and several members of the rank-and-file have criticized Bush for his proposals. To calm their concerns, the White House dispatched Karl Rove to their weekly closed-door meeting.
Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, an outspoken opponent of the Senate bill, derided the effort. “I didn’t see it was a persuasive event. If it was about Karl Rove seeking to convince members of Congress after debate that he’s right and we’re wrong it would have been better not to have the meeting,” he said.
King said Rove told lawmakers Bush is sincere about enforcement. But, he added, “The president doesn’t want to enforce immigration law because he’s afraid he’ll inconvenience someone who wants to come into the country for a better life.”
Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., agreed that Rove did not seem to have been persuasive. “It’s not the kind of issue you can compromise on; either you’re giving amnesty to people who are here illegally or you aren’t.”
At the White House, press secretary Tony Snow defended Bush against criticism. “The president is actually taking a more aggressive role on border security than the House itself took,” he said. “That is the sort of thing that is going to answer a lot of the complaints that we have heard.”
The National Capital Immigration Coalition organized the afternoon demonstration on the National Mall a few blocks from where lawmakers debated the issue they cared about.
“This is a critical moment,” said Juan Jose Gutierrez, one of the event’s organizers. “We oppose the militarization of the U.S-Mexican border.”
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