By MICHAEL DOYLE and MARGARET TALEV
May 17, 2006
In the first, symbolically significant vote since resuming the immigration debate, conservatives and a handful of populist Democrats failed by a 40-55 margin to postpone guest-worker and legalization proposals. The result foreshadows Senate approval of a complete immigration package next week, and thereby sets up a certain run-in with the House.
"It was a huge test vote; I was nervous as a cat," acknowledged Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla. "I thought that was the toughest vote for most people; I think (our support) will grow from here."
Martinez co-authored the centerpiece compromise of the 616-page immigration bill, offering a route to legal status for some but not all of the nation's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants. The amendment rejected Tuesday would have postponed such legalization and guest-worker plans until the Department of Homeland Security certifies all border security measures were in place.
"We have not enforced our border, and therefore its security is not respected," said Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga.. "What comes first is securing the American border."
The Senate could still face some two dozen additional amendments before it finishes tinkering with the immigration bill. Senators soundly rejected other amendments Tuesday as well, including one that would have eliminated a guest-worker program altogether.
The Senate agreed, though, to scale back the guest-worker plan to admit 200,000 immigrants a year, rather than the 325,000 originally proposed in the bill.
"It seems to me that 200,000 guest workers a year are ample," said Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California.
Still, coming one day after President Bush's high-profile national television address, it was the early afternoon rejection of Isakson's amendment that sent the loudest signals across Capitol Hill. Thirty-six Democrats, 18 Republicans and one independent joined to defeat Isakson and, implicitly, support a comprehensive approach.
"It means that an enforcement-only bill can't get out of the Congress," said Rep. George Radanovich, R-Calif. "It's pretty clear that enforcement only will not work (politically)."
White House spokesman Tony Snow noted that Bush did not explicitly endorse the Senate bill in his Monday night address. Instead, Snow indicated the president is saving his energy for the closed-door conference committee sessions between House and Senate negotiators.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., who opposes the guest-worker and citizenship expansions being proposed, likewise conceded Tuesday that the bill is heading to a conference. That's putting a premium on who gets to negotiate the final deal.
Republicans who favor a comprehensive bill, Radanovich noted, are hoping GOP leaders will pick as negotiators sympathetic lawmakers including Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Calif., and Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah.
Bush acknowledged Tuesday that "this is a difficult debate for members," but he did not reveal how he intended to change any minds.
Administration officials did, however, shed some more light on the new plan to deploy 6,000 National Guard troops to the Mexican border. The three-week shifts will take the place of the skills training sessions Guard members must complete annually. This strategy is intended to minimize the strain on Guard units juggling duty in Iraq and in disaster-prone states, but it also prompts critics to question how much the constantly revolving troops could actually accomplish.
The National Guard's bureau chief, Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, explained there would be a "continuity of force" to help things run smoothly. This would be a core of Guard personnel that would remain on their jobs through 2008 and coordinate with the relevant Border Patrol and U.S. Customs officials.
"The dozer operator may change every two or three weeks, or the medic may change every two or three weeks, but the people that are coordinating that and working the project will remain in place," Blum said.
Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.shns.com
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