May 24, 2006
Immigration Bill Passes Senate Hurdles
By Donna Smith
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A bill that would toughen border security while giving millions of illegal immigrants a chance to earn U.S. citizenship cleared key test votes in the U.S. Senate on Wednesday, setting the stage for passage this week and a big battle with the House of Representatives.
"We're now down the home stretch," said Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican who backs the compromise. "We fought off a number of very clearly crafted amendments that would basically have destroyed the bill."
The Senate, on a vote of 67-31, also beat back a challenge from some Republican opponents who sought to kill the bill through a budget procedural point saying it busted spending blueprints. They argued that low-wage immigrants who become legal residents and citizens will be eligible for Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other government programs, adding billions of dollars in costs to the budget.
"This bill is indeed a tremendous budget buster," said Sen. Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican who opposes the bill. He said studies show the long-term cost to the federal government could top $50 billion a year.
Supporters said Wednesday's strong bipartisan test votes should help in negotiations with the House, which has already passed a vastly different enforcement and border security bill and where many Republican lawmakers see the Senate legislation as tantamount to an amnesty for people who violated U.S. laws.
"This was an overwhelming show of force to move forward on our common sense and comprehensive plan for immigration reform," said Sen. Edward Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat who is helping shepherd the bill through the Senate.
MORE MONEY, MORE CLOUT
As the Senate worked toward passage of the legislation, it approved an amendment that would assess a $500 fee on illegal immigrants who benefit from the legalization program to help pay for border security. That would be on top of $2,750 in fines and other fees that were already included in the bill.
The Senate also voted to change an existing visa lottery program to ensure that at least 33,000 of the 50,000 visas issued annually under the program go to highly educated people with advanced degrees.
President George W. Bush, mindful of the growing clout of Hispanic voters, backs an approach similar to the Senate bill, but tough negotiations are expected with the House and it is unclear whether a final bill will emerge before the November congressional elections.
Bush said in a nationally televised address this month that thousands of National Guard troops would be deployed to secure the leaky border with Mexico, but the approach was dismissed by many conservatives in the House as inadequate.
Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican who opposes the bill and will play a role in negotiations with the House, said it was a "50-50 proposition" whether House Republicans will accept a comprehensive approach in line with the Senate bill.
Many lawmakers say Bush will have to work hard to win a final bill before the November elections, in which Democrats are hoping for their best showing in more than a decade.
Polls show immigration reform is an important issue, and many Republicans believe that getting a bill that assuages some of voters' concerns to Bush for his signature could help their sagging poll ratings.
(Additional reporting by Andy Sullivan and Richard Cowan)