WASHINGTON—The architects of a far-reaching immigration bill sought to fend off attacks from across the political spectrum Friday as they prepared to guide the measure through a do-or-die showdown in the Senate next week.
Capitol Hill operators were besieged with calls from interest groups, and immigration was clearly Topic A on radio talk shows. Conservatives rallied behind a familiar battle cry, assailing the measure as amnesty for millions of illegal immigrants who broke the law to enter the country.
A day after the measure was unveiled by the White House and a bipartisan group of senators, public reaction ranged from outright hostility to muted support at best, as critics zeroed in on the bill's flaws and pressed for amendments to tilt it more favorably in their direction.
Supporters acknowledged that a single destructive amendment could abruptly dismantle the delicately woven compromise that the White House and key senators took three months to assemble. The Senate is scheduled to start debate on Monday afternoon.
"Immigration is one of the most difficult areas in which to legislate, because feelings run deep on both sides of the issue," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who participated in the negotiations. "Any bill has to be bipartisan, and if we cannot get Republican votes, we cannot pass a bill."
The first big test comes when the Senate votes Monday on a motion to take up the measure, requiring a super majority of 60 votes. Supporters believe they can muster a bipartisan coalition to pass the measure but acknowledge that it will be close.
The measure, endorsed by President Bush and co-produced by the White House, would give quick legal status to more than 12 million illegal immigrants, create a temporary guest-worker program, strengthen penalties, and create a merit-based system for future immigration. Toughened border security measures must be in place before the guest-worker program and some legalization provisions take effect.
The border security prerequisites, described as "triggers," were aimed at appealing to enforcement-minded conservatives as part of a broad compromise to bridge factions in both parties. Supporters acknowledge that the bill wouldn't completely please anyone but, as a package, they say, it offers Congress and America the best—perhaps last—opportunity to repair the country's broken immigration system.
But the parade of commentary Friday clearly accentuated the negative.
"Isn't that ultimately the best kind of legislation—that nobody likes it," said Atlanta lawyer Charles Kuck, president-elect of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
Leaders of several pro-immigration groups said they welcomed the bill's sweeping provisions to legalize illegal immigrants. But they said they will press senators to allow participants in a guest-worker program to get on path to eventual citizenship. The bill would allow at least 400,000 workers into the country each year, but most would be required to go home after working a total of six years.
Business groups that argued for the guest-worker program to fill a chronic shortage of unskilled workers are also expected to push for changes to allow guest workers to apply for permanent legal residency.
Guest workers would have to go home for a year at the end of each two-year stay in the country and would have to return permanently at the end of year six. Businesses feel the return trips would give them no continuity to train and develop workers.
Cecilia Munoz, vice president of the National Council of La Raza, a leading Hispanic organization, said the group is "deeply troubled" by a fundamental change in immigration policy that would curtail family-based immigration and develop a merit system for determining the admission of future immigrants.
"You can expect amendments to be added," she said.
At the other end of the spectrum, conservative groups pummeled the legalization feature as amnesty, resurrecting a central theme from previous immigration debates. Phones on Capitol Hill were ringing so fiercely Friday that young staffers were handling several calls a minute, putting constituents on hold to handle others and repeating the same phrases: "Yes, sir. . . . Yes, sir. . . . We'll pass on your comments."
Sen. Elizabeth Dole, who is up for re-election in 2008, received several thousand calls this week about immigration. Her staff said the large majority opposed what she calls "amnesty" for illegal immigrants.
"Based on what I've learned so far, I would oppose this proposal unless it is radically altered," said Dole, a North Carolina Republican.
Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions, a leading opponent of immigrant legalization, announced that he is "deeply concerned" with the bill and strongly suggested that he may lead an effort to derail it.
"I will not vote for, and will actively oppose, immigration legislation that does not meet the expectations of the American people on important issues such as border security, citizenship and a transition to a merit-based `points' system," Sessions said.