WASHINGTON—A controversial White House-backed immigration bill remained largely unscathed Wednesday after withstanding assaults on two centerpiece components—a guest-worker program and legalization for millions of undocumented immigrants.
As many as a dozen amendments were in store Wednesday night as the Senate moved into a home-stretch mode to try to complete action on the bill, possibly by early next week. The Senate was expected to vote Thursday on a motion by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to begin cutting off debate.
Supporters overcame a major challenge Wednesday by defeating an amendment by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, that would have denied legalization for hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants who defied deportation orders in the past or re-entered the country after being deported.
Senators also rejected an amendment by Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., requiring illegal immigrants to have high-deductible health insurance in order to obtain Z visas, which would allow them to stay in the country legally.
Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., lost an attempt to allow participants in a guest-worker program to stay in the United States continuously for six years, instead of returning home after two-year work cycles.
Members of the fragile bipartisan coalition aligned behind the bill interpreted the votes as a sign of increasing momentum behind the legislation after nearly a week and a half of debate.
"We're still hanging pretty tough," said Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., one of the Senate's leading conservatives, who generally supports the legislation. Threats of a Republican uprising over Reid's plans to limit debate seemed to be subsiding as Senate leaders negotiated behind the scenes to allow final key amendments over the next several days.
Nevertheless, many of the amendments held the potential to demolish bipartisan support for the bill. Even Lott, the Senate's No. 2 Republican, acknowledged that "I'm out of here" if senators seriously alter provisions designed to reduce family-based immigration and end what conservatives describe as a decades-old pattern of chain migration that has brought millions of extended family members into the country.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., one of the bill's leading critics, distributed copies of a Congressional Budget Office study that said that the legislation, with beefed-up security and enforcement provisions, would reduce the net annual flow of illegal immigrants by one-quarter.
But other aspects of the legislation, said the CBO, could contribute to illegal immigration, particularly through guest workers who overstay their visas instead of returning home. Overall, said the analysts, the number of illegal immigrants would drop by about 500,000 in 2017 and about 1.3 million in 2027.
As many as 12 million immigrants, the majority from Latin America and Mexico, have entered the country illegally over the past two decades.
The bill, which President Bush supports, would allow illegal immigrants to stay in the country indefinitely under four-year renewable visas. They also could get on track for eventual citizenship but would have to wait for at least eight years until a current backlog is cleared, and they'd have to first go home to apply.
Cornyn's amendment was seen as one of the biggest threats to the bill and would have sharply reduced the number of potential beneficiaries for legalization. In addition to denying legalization to those who ignored deportation orders, it also sought to ensure that legalization wouldn't be extended to violent gang members, sex offenders, members of terrorist organizations, alien smugglers who use firearms and repeat drunken drivers.
Senators voted 51-46 to defeat the amendment after approving an alternative by Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., that denied legalization to certain categories of offenders but didn't include immigrants who entered or stayed in the country in violation of deportation orders.
Cornyn called the Kennedy measure a "watered-down fig leaf" that employs the premise "no felon left behind." But Kennedy said Cornyn's amendment would have made "vast numbers" of illegal immigrants ineligible since they live outside the law and would be likely to violate deportation orders to stay in the country and hold down jobs.