The Senate sidetracked sweeping immigration legislation Friday amid partisan recriminations, leaving in doubt prospects for passage of a measure that offered the hope of citizenship to millions of men, women and children living in the United States illegally.
The bill gained only 38 votes on a key procedural test, far short of the 60 needed to advance.
The vote marked a turnabout from Thursday, when the Senate’s two leaders had both hailed a last-minute compromise as a breakthrough in the campaign to enact the most far-reaching changes in immigration law in two decades.
But Republicans soon accused Democrats of trying to squelch their amendments, while Democrats accused the GOP of trying to kill their own bill by filibuster.
“It’s not gone forward because there’s a political advantage for Democrats not to have an immigration bill,” said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa.
Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid countered, “The amendments were being offered by people who didn’t want the bill.”
The vote fell nearly along party lines, with Democrats in favor of advancing the bill and Republicans opposed.
Specter told reporters his committee would resume work on the measure as soon as Congress returns from a two-week break. He said the panel would have a measure ready for renewed debate within 10 days after that.
But Frist stopped short of a commitment to bring the issue back to the floor during the balance of the election-year session. “I intend to,” he said, but added it would depend on the schedule of other bills.
No action likely until after recess
The Senate voted after President Bush prodded lawmakers to keep trying to reach an agreement, but both sides said the odds were that a breakthrough won’t occur until Congress returns from a two-week recess.
“An immigration system that forces people into the shadows of our society, or leaves them prey to criminals is a system that needs to be changed,” Bush said at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast on Friday. “I’m confident that we can change our immigration system in ways that secures our border, respects the rule of law, and, as importantly, upholds the decency of our country.”
Republicans said Democrats perceive a benefit in having only a GOP-written House bill that would make being an illegal immigrant a felony. That bill has prompted massive protests across the country, including a march by 500,000 people in Los Angeles last month.
Democrats blamed Republicans for insisting on amendments that would weaken a compromise that Senate leaders in both parties had celebrated Thursday.
“This opportunity is slipping through our hands like grains of sand,” said assistant Senate Democratic leader Dick Durbin of Illinois.
The election-year legislation is designed to enhance border security and regulate the flow of future temporary workers as well as affect the lives of illegal immigrants.
It separates illegal immigrants now in the U.S. into three categories.
Illegal immigrants here more than five years could work for six years and apply for legal permanent residency without having to leave the country. Those here two years to five years would have to go to border entry points sometime in next three years, but could immediately return as temporary workers. Those here less than two years would have to leave and wait in line for visas to return.
The bill also provides a new program for 1.5 million temporary agriculture industry workers over five years. It includes provisions requiring employers to verify they’ve hired legal workers and calls for a “virtual” fence of surveillance cameras, sensors and other technology to monitor the nearly 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexican border.
Demonstrations in support of the compromise were planned for Monday across the nation, including one in Washington that organizers claimed would draw 100,000 people.
The acrimony in the Senate at Thursday night’s end was a sharp contrast to the accolades 14 members of both parties traded just hours earlier when they announced their compromise.
Frist called it tragic “that we in all likelihood are not going to be able to address a problem that directly affects the American people.”
The House has passed legislation limited to border security, but Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and other leaders have signaled their willingness in recent days to broaden the bill in compromise talks with the Senate.
But Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., said anything with what he called amnesty would not get agreement from a majority in the House.