Immigration overhaul derailed
WASHINGTON — Landmark legislation offering eventual citizenship to millions of illegal immigrants suffered a potentially fatal blow Friday in the Senate, the latest in a series of election-year setbacks for President Bush and the Republicans who control Congress.
“Politics got ahead of policy on this,” lamented Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass. an evenhanded assessment that belied the partisan recriminations from all sides.
Hailed as a bipartisan breakthrough less than 24 hours earlier, the bill fell victim to internal disputes in both parties as well as to bewildering political maneuvering. On the key vote, only 38 senators, all Democrats, lined up in support. That was 22 short of the 60 needed, and left the legislation in limbo as lawmakers left the Capitol for a two-week break.
Supporters of the measure expressed hope for its resurrection, particularly with large public demonstrations planned over the next several days. “We have an agreement. It’s not going away,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who earlier had estimated that more than 60 senators favor the measure. Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Philadelphia, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, pledged to have legislation ready for debate in the Senate within two weeks of the lawmakers’ return.
Majority Leader Bill Frist, his party plagued by divisions, stopped short of a commitment to bring another immigration bill to the floor by year’s end. “I intend to,” the Tennessee Republican said, but added it would depend on the schedule, already crowded with other legislation.
The gridlock over immigration legislation capped an exceptionally trying week for Republicans, who face unexpectedly stiff challenges from Democrats for control of the House and Senate in the midterm elections.
House GOP leaders abruptly put off plans Thursday to vote on a budget for the coming year when leaders concluded they lacked a majority. The House-Senate leadership also gave up hopes of clearing a tax cut before the April 17 tax filing deadline.
An Associated Press-Ipsos poll showed Bush’s public support at new lows for his handling of Iraq and the war on terror as well as overall job performance.
And former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, under indictment in Texas and linked to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, announced plans to resign and then blasted his own party’s performance. “We don’t have an agreed agenda — breaking up our leadership has taken its toll,” he told one group of reporters.
The immigration bill would have provided for stronger border security, regulated the future entry of foreign workers and created a complex new set of regulations for the estimated 11 million immigrants in the country illegally. Officials said an estimated nine million of them, those who could show they had been in the United States for more than two years, would eventually become eligible for citizenship under the proposal.
Frist accused Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader, of “putting a stranglehold” on the Senate by refusing to permit votes on more than three Republican amendments.
“It’s not gone forward because there’s a political advantage for Democrats not to have an immigration bill,” asserted Specter.
Reid and others swiftly rebutted the claim. But Kennedy, who had seemed more eager than the Nevadan all week to find a compromise, declined several chances to offer a strong defense of his party’s leader.
“I respect Bill Frist, but his position on this matter simply defies logic. … He needed the courage to move forward,” said Reid.
And Sen. Dick Durbin, of Illinois, second-ranking Democrat, said late Thursday night it would be “game, set, match over” if Republicans failed to put up enough votes to advance the bill their leader supported.
Republicans, including those who favored the immigration bill, decided in advance they would cast protest votes to emphasize their opposition to Reid’s tactics. The Democratic leader has prevented votes on all but a few non-controversial amendments since debate began on the bill more than a week ago. Texas Sen. John Cornyn and other opponents expressed frustration that they were unable to gain votes on proposals to toughen enforcement or to leave immigration policy unchanged until the border had been made secure.