WASHINGTON—The Senate on Monday agreed to consider a bill legalizing millions of undocumented immigrants after supporters won a critical test vote and then turned to face a barrage of amendments that could unravel the compromise measure.
The bill cleared its first parliamentary hurdle when the Senate voted 69-23 to begin at least two weeks of debate, giving the White House and a bipartisan coalition of senators an opening victory in their push to overhaul the nation's immigration system.
But the vote—nine more than the required 60-vote "super majority" needed—marked only a wobbly starting point as critics in both parties readied dozens of amendments for the ensuing days of debate on the bill.
Senators quickly acknowledged they would be unable to finish work before leaving on a Memorial Day recess at the end of the week, a delay that could widen divisions as senators return home to face constituents. Debate will continue for another week after they return on June 4.
"We shouldn't be in a hurry to finish this bill," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
Members in both parties were readying several dozen amendments aimed at virtually every major feature in the bill. An early confrontation over a proposed guest worker program is expected on Tuesday when Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., attempts to sharply reduce the numbers permitted into the program each year.
The guest worker program, backed by the White House and a broad coalition of businesses, could bring in up to 600,000 workers a year to fill low-skilled jobs. Bingaman's amendment, identical to one that the Senate approved 79-18 last year, would reduce the cap to 200,000, a level that business groups say is woefully inadequate to meet a chronic labor shortage.
Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., hopes to dismantle the guest worker program entirely, saying it would take away jobs from U.S. workers and exacerbate hardships in economically distressed areas of the country. In contrast, pro-immigration groups and Hispanics want to recast the temporary worker program to enable participants to get on track for citizenship instead of returning to their home countries when their visas expire.
The multifaceted bill has come under fire from all points of the political spectrum since it was unveiled last week by a bipartisan group of senators and the White House after three months of negotiations. But supporters say the bill is the essence of compromise, offering something for everyone while satisfying no one completely.
"The answers are not simple or easy," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., who led the negotiating team. "There are strong views on every side of this question because the issue goes to the heart of who we are as a nation and an American people."
"This is a problem that begs for an answer," said Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., a Cuban immigrant who also participated in the negotiations. "We are at the threshold of a tremendous opportunity."
A fundamental element—and the most controversial—would enable all illegal immigrants who entered the United States before the first of the year to stay in the country and work under "Z visas" that would be renewable every four years. They would be required to pass criminal background checks and pay a $1,000 fine.
Those who wanted to get on track for U.S. citizenship by getting a green card would have to wait more than eight years and return home to apply. They would also have to pay an additional $4,000 and show proficiency in English.
Conservatives have assailed the proposal as amnesty that rewards illegal behavior and will rally behind amendments to make it more restrictive or eliminate it all together.
"A few senators and the administration have crafted a large-scale get-out-of-jail-free pass," said Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky. "No matter what you call it, X, Y or Z visa, this bill will grant amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants."
Those on the other side of the issue will attempt to make it easier for immigrants to get green cards and will try to eliminate the so-called touchback feature requiring a trip home.
Another confrontation is expected over a proposed merit-based system in which more than a third of future immigrants will be admitted under a point system based on their skills, education and potential contributions to in-demand industries. Humanitarian organizations plan to attack the proposed change because of a corresponding cut in family-based immigration.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the legalization proposal would give undocumented immigrants "the opportunity to come out of the shadows into the light of America."
But he expressed reservations about other features, including the requirement for guest workers to return home after working a total of six years. Reid warned that it could create a "permanent underclass of people who ... don't have the chance to put down roots."