Sweeping immigration reform legislation hit a roadblock in the U.S. Senate Friday, when a series of procedural votes failed to move the measure forward. Senate leaders hope work will resume on the bill when lawmakers return from a two-week recess, but its fate remains unclear.
At issue is a bill that would tighten border security, establish a temporary guest worker program, and offer many of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States a path to citizenship, if they met a number of conditions.
In two procedural votes, the Senate fell short of the 60 votes needed to move the legislation forward. Republicans and Democrats blamed one another for the stalemate.
Republican conservatives who opposed the measure -- arguing it would promise citizenship to those who came to the United States illegally -- wanted to amend the bill. But Democrats blocked such attempts, saying they were aimed at gutting the bill.
"Keep in mind, the people who would be allowed to offer amendments are people who hate the bill," said Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Senate's top Democrat, at a news conference.
"The Democratic leadership, by putting a stranglehold on the amendment and debate process, [is] causing us to postpone a very important issue,” said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist at a separate news conference, “and that is addressing our border security."
Some lawmakers, including Senator Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, are concerned that the Senate has lost a good opportunity to deal with immigration, which most Americans agree needs to be reformed. "It is going to be a tough uphill battle now,” he said, “with the limited time we have in this session."
But Senator Arlen Specter, the Pennsylvania Republican who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, vows to bring up immigration reform at his panel's first hearing after the congressional break, to keep the issue alive. "There is no doubt that there is urgency to protect our borders, to make sure we do not have terrorists crossing the borders, to make sure we do not have criminals crossing the borders,” he said, “and to take care of the economic needs of the country on immigrant workers, and to do something, which makes sense for the 11-million undocumented workers."
But what to do about those undocumented workers who are already here is a subject that is dividing Republicans this year, when many lawmakers will be seeking re-election. Many Republicans, including President Bush, support a “guest worker” program, which many members of the party's conservative base oppose. In addition, Republicans are concerned about alienating the growing and increasingly influential Hispanic electorate.
The issue has galvanized the Hispanic community, prompting hundreds of thousands to take to the streets of major U.S. cities to protest a tough immigration reform bill passed by the House of Representatives last year, which calls for designating undocumented workers "felons," and building a wall along portions of the U.S.-Mexican border.
Another day of demonstrations is planned Monday.
Any bill that is approved by the Senate will have to be reconciled with the House measure, which does not include a guest worker program, before it is sent to President Bush for signature.