WASHINGTON—The Senate, undercutting a central feature in the White House-backed immigration bill, voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to shrink the size of a proposed guest-worker program intended to give U.S. businesses a steady source of low-skilled foreign labor.
By 74-24, senators approved an amendment by Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., to cap the program at 200,000 workers annually. The bill originally proposed bringing 400,000 foreign workers into the country each year, and possibly as many 600,000 in special circumstances.
Bingaman's amendment also eliminates an "escalator" provision that would enable the government to adjust the numbers of workers depending on the country's economic needs.
Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl, the Republican leader of a bipartisan coalition that produced the sweeping immigration measure, said the bill's sponsors could begrudgingly accept the numerical reduction, but he expressed fears that the entire bill "would unravel" unless the escalator provision is restored.
"I'd say the deal's broken then," Bingaman said when told of Kyl's comment that the absence of an adjuster clause could be a "deal breaker." He said he'd fight attempts to restore it.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., one of the bill's sponsors, won easy passage of an amendment that would impose mandatory jail sentences for those who crossed the border illegally after being deported—at least 60 days in jail for the first offense and no less than two years for the second offense.
"Everyone needs to know that America is changing its immigration laws," Graham said. "If you break our laws, you will lose your freedom."
Senators also approved an amendment by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., to improve the treatment of more than 7,000 unaccompanied immigrant children who are taken into federal custody each year. The measure would help children reunite with families, expand shelter and foster care, and develop minimum standards for treatment.
"These children often don't speak the language, they have no friends, they have no guardian, they have no one to represent them," Feinstein said. "I find it hard to believe that our country would allow children to be treated in such a manner."
The bill, which also would legalize millions of illegal immigrants, emerged from three months of negotiations involving the Bush administration and a group of about a dozen senators from both parties. Sponsors describe the bill as a "grand bargain" and say that any major change through amendments could destroy the compromise.
Only 26 percent of American voters favor the legislation, according to a Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey conducted Monday and Tuesday night. Forty-eight percent are opposed, while 26 percent aren't sure.
The measure has come under attack from a diverse array of interest groups,—including Hispanics, labor groups and conservative organizations—but it won a potentially influential ally Wednesday when Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott, the Senate's No. 2 Republican, urged other Republican members to get behind it.
"This is a big problem," Lott said at a news conference with Kyl. "Have we no courage at all?"
Lott, a conservative who voted against an immigration bill that passed the Senate last year, said the bill, while not perfect, would help strengthen the border and take steps toward dealing with a chaotic immigration system that had bedeviled Congress for two decades.
Lott, the Senate's minority whip, said he'd decided to take an out-front position because of "misperceptions" being fanned by opponents of the bill.
"There's been such a distortion here I need to get in the loop," he said.
He conceded that Republicans risk alienating conservative constituents who oppose a guest-worker program and the legalization of millions of immigrants. But, he added, "if you've always got your finger up in the air" to gauge political sentiments, "you're never going to get anything done."
Kyl, who has come under fire in his state for his role in the negotiations, said neither he nor Lott "like the fact the people who came here illegally get to stay here," but he said legalization was part of the tradeoff to get a bill. "Obviously we had to make certain concessions," he said.
Bingaman's amendment marked a victory for organized labor, which contends that a guest-worker program would depress wages and drive American workers out of jobs. It came a day after senators rejected a broader amendment to kill the program.
The New Mexico senator told colleagues that his proposal "does not destroy the bill" but would allow a "much more prudent" guest-worker program.
All but two Democrats voted for the measure, while Republicans split—27 for and 21 against.
Kyl said in a briefing as senators were approving the amendment that businesses could get workers from the pool of new legalized immigrants to help offset the reduced numbers in the guest-worker program. But he said the adjuster cause was vital and must be restored to enable the government to respond to economic fluctuations.
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.