Immigration bill faces crucial test

Conservative Republican senators and a handful of Democrats are trying to put a final knife in President Bush’s plan for legalizing millions of unlawful immigrants.

A broad immigration bill, embracing what critics call amnesty, survived a series of unfriendly amendments Wednesday. Supporters pointed to the bill’s tighter borders and workplace rules to keep it alive.

Both sides agreed the crucial vote occurs Thursday. Supporters must gain 60 votes in the 100-member chamber to limit debate and clear the way for a roll call on final passage, perhaps by Friday. Anything less will likely doom the legislation until a new president and Congress take office in 2009.

Bush’s allies passed a similar test Tuesday, but several senators said they simply were agreeing to let debate continue for a couple of days, and they made no promises to support the legislation on Thursday or beyond.

The revived immigration measure could grant legalization to the estimated 12 million unlawful immigrants if they pass background checks and pay fines and fees. It also would toughen border security and institute a new system for weeding out illegal immigrants from workplaces.

It faces challenges from the left as well as the right.

Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., was among those disappointed Wednesday. The Senate voted 55-40 to reject his amendment that would have made it easier for some immigrants to obtain visas for family members left behind in their home countries.

“This action does nothing to allay my concerns about the increasingly right-wing tilt to these proceedings, and it makes it more difficult to vote in favor of invoking cloture on the bill,” Menendez said, referring to Thursday’s crucial vote to limit debate.

While Menendez and a few other Democrats may oppose the bill, the main opponents have been Bush’s fellow sunbelt Republicans. GOP Sens. David Vitter of Louisiana, Jim DeMint of South Carolina and Jeff Sessions of Alabama led the charge, often backed by Texans Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn.

Late Wednesday, they applauded the Senate’s refusal to reject a fairly low-key amendment that, because of parliamentary rules, left leaders no choice but to halt action until Thursday’s showdown vote.

“They tried to railroad this through today, but we derailed the train,” DeMint said. Asked if he was poised to kill the bill Thursday, DeMint replied, “we hope to.”

The bill’s bipartisan supporters, who include liberals such as Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and conservatives such as Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., said they would push hard to survive Thursday’s vote. But they were frustrated by the lack of enthusiasm shown by many in the president’s party.

Some noted the virtual absence throughout Wednesday’s floor debate of Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who has declined to say how he would vote on the measure.

McConnell left GOP colleagues including Arlen Specter, R-Pa., to contend with the Vitter-DeMint-Sessions group, while Democrats were represented in the chamber most of the day by Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.