updated 7/8/2009 2:03:48 PM ET 2009-07-08T18:03:48

The Senate voted Wednesday to require actual fencing along 700 miles of the border with Mexico rather than vehicle barriers and high-tech equipment.

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The plan by Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., won approval by a 54-44 vote as the Senate began a second day of debate on a $42.9 billion measure to fund the Department of Homeland Security for the budget year beginning Oct. 1.

DeMint said the U.S.-Mexico border "has become a battleground" as drug and weapons traffickers, along with illegal immigrants, move too freely. He said the department is spending too much on "virtual" fencing such as motion detectors. Those barriers, he said, don't work as well as a real fence designed to block people crossing the border on foot.

Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, countered that the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency was the best judge of the preferred fencing for various parts of the border. He said some stretches of physical fencing can cost up to $5 million per mile.

Separately, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., pushed through a plan to extend permanently the E-Verify program, which uses the Social Security database to check whether workers are illegal immigrants. His plan also would require companies doing business with the federal government to use the system.

The two developments demonstrated the extent to which spending bills can serve as vehicles for policy debates.

On Tuesday night, for example, the House Appropriations Committee approved an amendment that effectively would force General Motors Corp. and Chrysler LLC to restore franchise agreements with dealers as a condition of partial government ownership. That development came as the committee approved a spending bill to fund the Treasury Department, White House operations and other programs.

"It would force them to honor their franchise agreements and not use the excuse of bankruptcy to do what they couldn't have done under state franchise law," said Rep. Steve LaTourette, R-Ohio. "There are horror stories all over the country."

LaTourette's amendment is vulnerable to a procedural challenge in the full House next week. But the committee chairman, Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., said he would fight to save the amendment.

Other budget work kept Congress busy Wednesday.

A Senate panel approved a $34.3 billion measure for the Energy Department and Army Corps of Engineers' water projects. A second was set to OK a $24.4 billion proposal for the Treasury Department, the White House and the federal contribution to the District of Columbia.

Later, the House planned to consider a measure covering farm and nutrition programs.

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