WASHINGTON—Senators Thursday overwhelmingly endorsed a plan to allow more than 12 million undocumented immigrants to remain in the United States legally and rejected major challenges to legislation that President Bush called the "best opportunity" to repair the nation's immigration system.
Senators voted 66-29 to reject an amendment that would have killed the legalization plan, preserving the most controversial component of the White House-backed immigration bill. The amendment was co-sponsored by Republican Sens. David Vitter of Louisiana and Jim DeMint of South Carolina.
As the Senate prepared to suspend debate and head home for a weeklong Memorial Day recess, Bush conceded that senators are grappling with an "explosive issue." But he called on Congress to display "the political courage necessary to get the bill to my desk as quickly as possible."
"It's a difficult piece of legislation," Bush told reporters in the White House Rose Garden. "And those who are looking to find fault with this bill will always be able to find something.
"But if you're serious about securing our borders and bringing millions of illegal immigrants in our country out of the shadows, this bipartisan bill is the best opportunity to move forward," he said.
The legalization provision would enable most illegal immigrants to stay in the country indefinitely with Z visas that would be renewable every four years. They also could have the option to seek permanent legal residency by obtaining green cards, but they'd have to wait more than eight years and would have to return to their home countries to apply.
"This is the proposal that has so many Americans upset," Vitter said, attacking the legalization plan as amnesty that rewards illegal behavior.
But Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., charged that approval of the Vitter-DeMint amendment would leave "nothing but a shell of this bill" if the Senate approved it. He called the legalization feature "if not the heart of this bill, a vital organ of this bill."
Senators also rejected—by whisker-thin margins—two other attacks on the bill. By votes of 49-48, the Senate rejected amendments to end a proposed guest-worker program after five years and to allow any federal, state or local law enforcement official to question individuals about their immigration status.
The guest-worker amendment by Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., was one of a series of labor-backed assaults on a plan to bring in foreign workers for as many as six years to fill low-skilled jobs. On Wednesday, senators agreed to cut the size of the program from a maximum of 200,000 workers a year from 600,000, despite objections from business groups.
Under the legalization plan, an undocumented immigrant would be allowed to remain in the country if he or she paid a $1,000 fine, learned English and passed a criminal background check. An illegal immigrant would pay an additional $4,000 and meet other conditions if he or she returned home to apply for a green card, a first step toward citizenship.
Without debate, the Senate accepted an amendment by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to require Z card holders to pay back taxes, a provision similar to one that was in a bill the Senate passed last year. Sponsors of this year's bill said collecting back taxes could be difficult, but they made no attempt to derail McCain's amendment.
After three days of debate, the White House and a bipartisan group of senators have managed to defeat destructive amendments and keep the bill basically intact, prompting sponsors to express cautious optimism about one of the most volatile issues facing Congress.
"I would say it's been a good week, and before long we may just have a bill," said Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla.
But sponsors conceded that the battle is far from over, and they braced for an earful from constituents during the Memorial Day recess. The Senate will resume work on the bill after returning on June 4.
"Yes, I have learned some new words from some of my constituents," said Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., who's come under fire in his home state for helping craft the compromise bill.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., the Democratic leader of the bipartisan coalition backing the bill, said supporters had "made progress" but will be "under no illusions" when they return early next month.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., another leading supporter who's drawn criticism from constituents, said he plans to travel around his home state "to talk about how the bill is good for the country.
"I look forward to going home to stand up for what I believe to be the right answer," he said.
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.