WASHINGTON — After a month of on-again, off-again deliberations, the Senate was poised to resume debate Tuesday on a White House-backed immigration bill amid an intense lobbying effort by the Bush administration.
President Bush has aggressively backed the bill, urging Congress to overhaul the nation's immigration laws. But lighting-rod provisions in the 627-page measure — including legalization of an estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants — have divided Republicans and Democrats, as well much of the nation.
Supporters face a key test on Tuesday when the Senate votes to take up the measure. If the bill survives that test — requiring a 60-vote super-majority of the 100-member Senate — it then faces nearly two dozen amendments, some of which have the potential to kill the bill.
The challenge for the White House and the bill's supporters is to maintain and build on a fragile bipartisan coalition that has struggled, with limited success, to keep the bill free of major changes since the Senate began debate on May 21. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., yanked the bill from the floor for a week in a parliamentary skirmish over amendments, but agreed to bring it back up after the quarreling sides reached a truce on how to proceed.
A final Senate vote is expected by late Friday before Congress leaves for a July 4 recess. If it survives, the immigration legislation would then go to the House of Representatives and would ultimately be settled by a House-Senate conference committee. Defeat in the Senate would all but guarantee that the issue is dead for this session of Congress — and possibly for years.
"We do not expect to fail this week,'' said Joel Kaplan, deputy White House chief of staff for policy.
Bush has made immigration his top domestic priority, calling on Congress to pass comprehensive legislation that would include toughened border security, a temporary guest-worker program and conditional legalization for the millions of immigrants who have entered the country over the last two decades, largely from Latin America.
But, with his declining popularity and weakened political strength, Bush has been unable to halt defections within his party. The two Republican senators from his home state of Texas, John Cornyn and Kay Bailey Hutchison, denounce the legalization provision as amnesty for illegal immigrants.
The bill would allow immigrants who entered the United States before Jan. 1 to apply for Z visas, which would enable them to remain in the country and work indefinitely. They also could eventually be eligible to apply for green cards to get on track for U.S. citizenship, but would have to leave the country before applying.
Another controversial provision, opposed by organized labor and many Democrats, would enable U.S. businesses to bring in temporary foreign workers to fill low- and unskilled jobs. Two of the most substantial amendments to the bill thus far have altered the guest-worker program, reducing its size and phasing it out after five years.
Three leading Republican architects of the bill — Sens. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., Mel Martinez, R-Fla., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. — are advancing a broad enforcement-oriented amendment designed to pick up conservative support.
The three senators hope to soften Republican objections to the legalization provision by requiring illegal immigrants to pass background checks before being granted probationary legalization. The amendment also would require the head of an illegal-immigrant household to leave the country in order to get a Z visa.
Republican supporters concede that tilting the bill too far to the right would endanger support from Democrats, who hold a narrow majority in the Senate. Some Democrats are already inclined to vote against the bill because of the guest-worker provisions, changes in family-based immigration and a new point-based immigration system that would favor skilled workers and professionals.
Predictions of the bill's fate depended on the perspective. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., the leading Democratic sponsor, predicted that the measure would pass. His office circulated a letter from the Western Governors' Association on Monday urging passage of the bill, calling it "among the highest of priorities for the western states.''
Graham predicted that the bill would gain the 60 votes needed Tuesday to reach the Senate floor _and that it would gain final passage.
But Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., a leading opponent, said there were 34 "solid no" votes against the bill heading into the debate, with 10 to 12 senators' votes "still in play." The measure's foes would need 40 votes to defeat it.
"Momentum against the bill is building as more and more people take a stand," DeMint said.
Proponents' view: www.immigrationforum.org
Opponents' view: www.fairus.org
To see the bill, go to www.thomas.gov/cgi-bin/query/z?c110:S.1639:
(James Rosen contributed.)