Thursday, June 28, 2007

Immigration bill is once again pulled from the Senate floor

Jonathan Weisman:

The most dramatic overhaul of the nation's immigration laws in a generation was trounced this morning by a bipartisan filibuster, with the political right and left overwhelming a coalition of Republicans and Democrats who had been seeking compromise on one of the most difficult social and economic issues facing the country.

The 46-53 tally fell dramatically short of the 60 votes needed to overcome opponents' dilatory tactics and parliamentary maneuvers that have dogged the bill for weeks.

The failure marked the second time in a month the bill was pulled from the Senate floor, and this time, Democratic leaders of the Senate indicated it would not be back.

The vote was a major defeat for President Bush, dealt largely by members of his own party. The president made a last-ditch round of phone calls this morning to senators in an attempt to rescue the bill, but with his poll numbers at record lows, his appeals proved fruitless. Bush has now lost what is likely to be the last, best chance at a major domestic accomplishment for his second term.

Both of Maryland's Democratic senators voted to keep the bill alive, while Virginia's Democrat, Jim Webb, and its Republican, John Warner, voted to kill it.

A flood of angry phone calls from reform opponents shut down the Capitol switchboard ahead of the vote, overwhelming the message of a small klatch of immigrant-rights demonstrators urging passage outside the Capitol. Latino lawmakers from the House flooded onto the Senate floor to encourage the Senate to keep the legislation alive and let the House have a turn. But it was not even close.

Opponents of the bill painted the fight as a battle between the people of the United States against a government that has grown insensitive to an illegal immigrant invasion that threatens the fabric of the nation. Proponents said the Senate had succumbed to the angry voices of hate, venom and racism.

"This immigration debate has become a war between the American people and their government," proclaimed Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who led a small group of Republican senators who used every parliamentary maneuver they could find to stymie progress on the bill over the past month. "It transcends anything about immigration. It has become a crisis of confidence."

"We know what they're against. We just don't know what they're for," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), one of the bill's main architects, thundered about his opponents. "Are we going to respond to the voices of fear? That is the issue."

The bill would have coupled tough border enforcement measures and a crackdown on employers of illegal immigrants with a pathway to citizenship for 12 million illegal immigrants, a new guest worker system for foreigners seeking entry and dramatic changes to the system of legal migration.

But in crafting a delicate compromise, the bill's 12 architects created a measure that was reviled by foes of illegal immigration, opposed by most labor unions and unloved by immigration advocates. Opposition came not only from talk radio hosts such as Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage, but from the American Civil Liberties Union and the AFL-CIO.

Conservatives saw the measure as amnesty for law breakers who had sneaked into the country. The ACLU objected to provisions that denied immigrants many legal rights. And labor unions saw its guest worker program as a license for big business to import cheap labor and drive down wages.

Even Latino organizations were split, with the League of United Latin American Citizens saying the guest worker program and new green card system were too punitive to support, while the National Council of La Raza pleaded with lawmakers to keep the legislation alive while its lobbyists sought changes.

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), one of the bill's authors, mustered only a tepid defense when he called the legislation "the very best that can be done as of this moment."

"This is an accommodation," he said. "And the art of politics is to compromise and accommodate."

Against that was the rhetoric of opponents, such as Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who declared: "Americans feel they are losing their country."

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