WASHINGTON — The outlook for a White House-backed immigration bill was increasingly uncertain Wednesday as several critics hardened their position against the bill and supporters led by President Bush scrambled to court votes from wavering senators.
The fate of the president's top domestic initiative could be decided Thursday with a crucial test in the Senate that will decide whether it moves forward for a final vote the following day or collapses amid deep political divisions.
``This is going to give new meaning to the notion of close call,'' said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who said he won't decide whether to support or oppose the 627-page bill until senators complete work on amendments.
The bill, which has come under attack from both ends of the political spectrum, would legalize 12 million illegal immigrants, create a temporary guest-worker program, toughen border security and increase penalties for employers who hire illegal aliens.
A bipartisan group of senators who crafted the legislation with help from the White House fended off a series of potentially killer amendments Wednesday and expressed confidence that they could steer the bill to a successful vote on final passage by late Friday.
But they must first get a 60-vote majority on Thursday to begin cutting off debate.
``By tomorrow, we'll either have the votes or we won't,'' Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., one of the bill's leading supporters, said Wednesday. ``I believe we will.''
But Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., another supporter, said he was braced for ``trench warfare'' and told fellow senators: ``It's going to be a rough ride.''
Supporters prevailed in an earlier test on Tuesday when the Senate voted 64-35 — four more than the needed 60 votes — to reopen debate on the measure, which was resurrected after being sidelined for a week by a parliamentary dispute.
But an undetermined number of senators who agreed to bring the bill back up were thought to be keeping their options open on final passage until a final version of the bill emerges with the completion of amendments.
At least two Republicans who'd been critical of the bill — Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas and Kit Bond of Missouri — declared their intention to vote against the measure after the defeat of amendments that they had deemed necessary to gain their support.
Hutchison's amendment, which senators tabled by a surprisingly close 53-45 vote, would have required adult illegal immigrants to return home before getting Z visas that would enable them to live and work indefinitely in the United States.
``I don't see how I can support this bill in any form,'' said Hutchison, adding that the defeat of her amendment is ``going to turn a number of people against the bill.''
Bond's amendment, tabled by a 56-41 vote, would have prevented Z visa holders from getting green cards to become legal U.S. residents and candidates for citizenship.
Declaring that ``I will oppose'' a bill that doesn't include his amendment, Bond said misgivings over legalization and other aspects of the bill could widen opposition among Republicans as a final vote approaches. ``A lot of people are taking a look at it,'' he said. ``The more you look at it, the uglier it looks.''
Sen. Jim Webb, a Virginia Democrat, also described himself as a ``probable no'' after senators rejected his amendment, which would have eliminated the bill's requirement that Z visa holders must leave the country to get on track for citizenship.
Although Republican opponents have drawn most of the attention by defying the president on one of his most important initiatives, Democrats are also divided on the bill. Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and Mary Landrieu, D-La., as expected, both said they plan to vote against the measure, in part because of objections to a guest-worker program, which Dorgan said would displace U.S. workers.