U.S. immigration bill dies in Senate; defeat for Bush
WASHINGTON: President George W. Bush's effort to overhaul the nation's immigration policy, a cornerstone of his domestic agenda, collapsed Thursday in the Senate, with little prospect that it can be revived before Bush leaves office in 19 months.
The bill called for the biggest changes to immigration law in more than 20 years, offering legal status to millions of illegal immigrants while trying to secure borders. But the Senate, forming blocs that defied party affiliation, could never unite on the main provisions.
Rejecting the president's last-minute pleas, it voted, 53 to 46, to turn back a motion to end debate and move toward final passage. Supporters fell 14 votes short of the 60 needed to close the debate.
Bush placed telephone calls to lawmakers throughout the morning. But members of his party abandoned him in droves, with just 12 of the 49 Senate Republicans sticking by him on the important procedural vote that determined the fate of the bill.
Nearly one-third of Senate Democrats voted, in effect, to block action on the bill.
The vote followed an outpouring of criticism from conservatives and others who called it a form of amnesty for lawbreakers.
The outcome was a bitter disappointment for Bush and other supporters of a comprehensive approach, including Hispanic and church groups and employers who had been seeking greater access to foreign workers.
Supporters and opponents said the measure was dead for the remainder of the Bush administration, though conceivably individual pieces might be revived.
The vote reflected the degree to which Congress and the nation are polarized over immigration. The emotional end to what had been an emotional debate was evident, with a few senior staff members who had invested months in writing the bill near tears.
"The bill now dies," said Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, who helped write the measure.
The outcome also underscored the challenge that Bush faces in exerting authority and enacting an agenda as members of his party increasingly break with him and Democrats no longer fear him. Having already given up on other ambitious second-term plans like overhauling Social Security, the administration has little prospect of winning any big new legislative achievements in its final months.
The collapse also highlighted the difficulties that the new Democratic leadership in Congress has had in showing that it can address the big problems facing the nation. In this case, Democratic leaders asserted that the failure of the immigration bill reflected on Bush, and not on their party.
Senator David Vitter, the Louisiana Republican who helped lead opposition to the bill, said: "The proponents did not get even a simple majority. The message is crystal clear. The American people want us to start with enforcement at the border and at the workplace and don't want promises. They want action. They want results. They want proof, because they've heard all the promises before."
In voting to end the debate, the 12 Republicans were joined by 33 Democrats and one independent. Voting against the motion to end the debate were 15 Democrats, one independent and 37 Republicans, including the minority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
"I had hoped for a bipartisan accomplishment," McConnell said. "What we got was a bipartisan defeat."
Among the Democrats voting no were several up for re-election next year, including Senators Max Baucus of Montana, Tom Harkin of Iowa and John Rockefeller IV of West Virginia.
The Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, said he spoke to Bush after the vote and thanked him for his work in support of the bill.
But, Reid said, "There just was not enough Republican support for the president's approach."
Bush, in Rhode Island for a visit to the Naval War College, said: "Legal immigration is one of the top concerns of the American people, and Congress's failure to act on it is a disappointment. A lot of us worked hard to see if we couldn't find common ground. It didn't work."
In the end, many groups that had supported segments of the bill urged the Senate to pass it in the hope that it could be "improved" in the House.
Representative Zoe Lofgren, the California Democrat who is chairwoman of the House Judiciary subcommittee on immigration, said: "The Senate vote effectively kills comprehensive immigration reform for this Congress. It's a vote for the status quo, which most Americans are not satisfied with."
Supporters of the bill agreed with opponents on one point, that many Americans believe that the government lacks the ability to carry out the huge responsibilities it would have had. "People look out and they see the failures of government, whether it's Hurricane Katrina or the inability to get enough passports out for people, and they say, 'How is the government going to accomplish all of this?' " Feinstein said.
Opponents of the bill were elated.
Senator Jim DeMint, Republican of South Carolina, said: "The American people won today. They care enough for their country to get mad and to fight for it. Americans made phone calls and sent letters and convinced the Senate to stop this bill."
Senator Jeff Sessions, Republican of Alabama, a leading opponent of the bill, said talk radio was "a big factor" in derailing it.
Supporters of the bill wanted to pass it quickly, "before Rush Limbaugh could tell the American people what was in it," Sessions said.
Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, chief Democratic architect of the bill, said many senators "voted their fears, not their hopes."
Referring to opponents, Kennedy said: "We know what they don't like. What are they for? What are they going to do with the 12 million who are undocumented here? Send them back to countries around the world? Develop a type of Gestapo here to seek out these people that are in the shadows? What's their alternative?"
Without a new immigration law, Kennedy said, "The situation is going to get worse and worse and worse."
As the vote was conducted, several House members of Hispanic descent gathered on the Senate floor, and tourists in the gallery listened to the final arguments with rapt attention.
A bipartisan group of 12 senators working closely with the administration wrote the bill in closed sessions over three months. After two weeks of debate, it appeared to die on June 7, when the Senate voted, 50 to 45, against ending debate.
Reid pulled the bill off the floor, but later agreed to return it under a procedure that bundled 27 proposed amendments into one package.
Opponents and some supporters said Senate leaders had made a mistake in taking the bill directly to the floor without hearings or review by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Not just conservatives voiced reservations. Senator Susan Collins, a moderate Republican from Maine who is running for re-election, said: "I just don't think the bill struck the right balance. People were troubled by the proposed solution for the 12 million people here illegally. We did not get that part right."
Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, a co-author of the bill, said a majority of Americans supported it when told of other provisions like increased money for border security, a new employee verification system, a guest worker program and a new merit-based system to select immigrants.
But Senator Harkin said, "The bill, as a whole, has evolved into an unworkable mess, and I cannot support it."
Guest workers could drive down wages for Americans "on the lower rungs of the economic ladder," Harkin said, and under the employee verification system, some citizens could have been denied jobs "because of errors in a government database."
Among important early backers who fell away was Senator Pete Domenici, Republican of New Mexico, who said he received two calls from Bush in recent days. Domenici said the secrecy surrounding the bill's drafting had left people confused and "caused it to flop."
Senator Ben Nelson, Democrat of Nebraska and another recipient of a call from Bush, concluded that the bill was beyond repair after having backed efforts to advance it.
"This bill is not only hopelessly flawed, it is unsalvageable," Nelson said. "We have to start over."
Janet Murguía, president of the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic rights group, predicted that "the growing and increasingly energized Latino electorate" would hold lawmakers accountable for failing to pass a comprehensive bill.