May 24, 2006

Immigration bill moves closer to Senate passage

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 a test vote in the Senate on
Wednesday, setting the stage for passage this week and a
bruising battle with the House of Representatives.

The Senate voted 73-25 to limit further debate on the bill
as a bipartisan coalition withstood several attempts by
opponents to unravel the legislation. Lawmakers now expect the
bill to be passed, most likely on Thursday.

"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."

Supporters said Wednesday's strong bipartisan vote should
help in negotiations with the House, which has already passed a
narrow enforcement and border security bill and where many
Republican lawmakers see the Senate legislation as tantamount
to an amnesty for criminals.

"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.

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 could help their sagging poll

Immigration was a major topic at a closed-door meeting of
House Republicans on Wednesday that was attended by White House
political adviser Karl Rove.

Rep. Jeff Flake, a conservative Republican activist from
Arizona, said Rove was assuring Republicans that the White
House is "serious about the border" and strengthening

Flake said House Republicans are looking closely at a plan
proposed by Indiana Republican Mike Pence to create a guest
worker program that requires illegal immigrants to leave the
country to get a work permit to return. The program would be
run by private companies.

Flake said such a proposal could open the way for a

(Additional reporting by Andy Sullivan and Richard Cowan)