WASHINGTON—Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid moved Tuesday to begin ending debate on a far-reaching immigration bill and threatened to yank the measure from the Senate floor if Republicans persist in what he described as stalling tactics aimed at killing the bill.
Republicans, led by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, angrily responded by accusing the Nevada Democrat of stifling consideration on the nation's top domestic priority and unfairly bottling up GOP amendments.
"We are going to insist on fundamental fairness," McConnell said in an exchange with Reid. "This measure may well be the only significant accomplishment of this Congress."
The parliamentary dust-up came as senators worked into their second week of debate on the measure following a weeklong Memorial Day recess that brought them face to face with constituents about the controversial White House-backed measure.
Reid stressed that he recognized the importance of immigration legislation. But he said that it was time to begin limiting amendments, winding down debate and moving on to other issues, such as energy, stem cell research, a farm bill and a defense authorization.
Many of the proposed amendments, he said, come from senators "who have no intention of voting for this bill no matter what we do with it."
Reid announced plans to file a motion that would force a Thursday evening vote to end debate within 30 hours—a cloture motion, which could entangle the bill in a parliamentary standoff. Republicans vowed to oppose the motion, which requires a 60-vote supermajority of the 100-member Senate, raising the prospect of a debilitating filibuster.
Reid, however, said he would remove the bill from the floor if Republicans carried out their threat. If the cloture motion fails, he said, "I'm not going to proceed on it (the bill) further at this time. We may try to do it some other time, but not at this time.
"This is a bill that will never, ever make a majority of the Republicans happy," Reid said. "It doesn't matter what we do."
Leaders of a bipartisan coalition backing the legislation, however, hoped to avoid a dramatic showdown and were working with Democratic and Republican leaders to allow some amendments to placate critics of the bill. Some senators suggested that Reid's action was a ploy to force Republicans to limit amendments.
Senate leaders agreed to consider a controversial amendment by Sen. John Cornyn on Wednesday after the Texas Republican renewed charges that backers of the bill have blocked consideration of his proposal.
The amendment would require illegal immigrants who ignored deportation orders or tried to re-enter the country after being deported from being eligible for legalization provisions under the bill. The bill's supporters say his amendment would block legalization for hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants and thus would undercut one of the bill's central provisions.
Cornyn's fellow Texas Republican, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, also appeared in line to offer three amendments, including one that would require undocumented immigrants to first return to their home countries before being eligible for Z visas, which would enable them to remain in the United States.
More than a dozen other amendments, sponsored by members of both parties, remain in the pipeline and likely will be voted on over the next two days. As senators resumed work on the bill Tuesday, they voted 62-31 to defeat an amendment by Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo., to make it harder for illegal immigrants to get green cards for permanent residency and eventual U.S. citizenship.
Senators voted 71-22 on an amendment to ensure that employers exhaust every possibility to find Americans to fill jobs that otherwise would go to foreign participants of a guest worker program. Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., sponsored the amendment.
A McConnell amendment that would have required voters to present government-issued photo IDs before casting ballots was defeated by a vote of 41-52. McConnell said afterward that the Senate "failed to seize an opportunity" to safeguard elections and prevent voter fraud.
Senators offered contrasting assessments of their constituents' views toward the bill as they returned to the legislation. Supporters said they sensed an overwhelming mood that Americans are demanding action and believe that the bill—no matter how imperfect—is the best starting point to deal with the country's immigration system.
Conversely, opponents—and those inclined to oppose the bill—reported widespread disenchantment, particularly over the legalization provisions.
Similarly, senators also varied on their forecasts of the bill's chances for passage. Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., who has come under attack in his home state for helping forge the compromise bill, gave the measure a 50-50 chance. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., another leading supporter who has drawn fire back home, was more optimistic, predicting that about 70 senators would sign on to the measure.
"I predict the bill will pass overwhelmingly," he said.