Senate keeps guest-worker program after amendment fails
The Senate on May 24 approved a path to citizenship for illegal aliens, beating back an attempt to remove it from the “grand bargain” immigration bill.
“This is amnesty, pure and simple,” said Sen. Jim DeMint, the South Carolina Republican who tried to strip out the legalization provisions, saying it would repeat the mistake of the 1986 amnesty.
But his amendment failed 6629. Twenty-five Republicans voted for a path to citizenship for illegals, while 20 voted against it, and 41 Democrats voted for legalization while nine voted against it. The chamber’s two Democrat-leaning independents also voted for legalization.
If the amendment had passed, it would have cut out the heart of the grand bargain, reached last week by a handful of Democrats and Republicans and the White House. Under that deal, the Republicans agreed to legalize illegal aliens in exchange for Democrats’ allowing a new guest-worker program and changes that favor future immigrants with needed skills and education.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, said this new path to citizenship isn’t amnesty because it requires illegals to wait, pay fines and demonstrate a work history.
“Legalization is important for our national security. We have to know who is in the United States of America. Legalization is important in terms of our economic prosperity,” he said.
Hours earlier, the bipartisan group defending the immigration deal escaped a closer call, defeating a Democratic amendment to end the guest-worker program after five years.
They avoided that only after Mr. Kennedy talked Sen. Daniel K. Akaka, Hawaii Democrat, into switching his vote, and the amendment failed 49-48.
Afterward, the bill’s backers were convinced that they have a clear path to passing when the Senate returns from a weeklong Memorial Day vacation.
“We see essentially no enormous roadblocks or no poison pills or no killer amendments ahead that we can’t deal with,” said Sen. Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican.
It was the third key vote so far on the guest-worker program, which was the major battleground for the bill.
Opponents managed on May 23 to cut the number of new workers per year to 200,000, but the bill’s supporters have kept the program intact, including in yesterday’s 49-48 vote. In that vote, 38 Republicans, 10 Democrats and one independent voted against the sunset and 38 Democrats, nine Republicans and one independent voted to end the program after five years.
The two votes on May 24, stacked side by side, show that the threat to the Senate compromise comes far more from successful amendments from the left than from the right. More potential roadblocks include upcoming votes on Democrat-sponsored amendments that expand the definition of families eligible for reunification and try to eliminate some of the steps that illegal aliens must take before gaining a green card.
Still, the May 24 legalization vote is likely to have the most immediate political impact among Republicans, who are deeply divided over legalizing illegal aliens.
It also marked a reversal for a number of Republicans who had previously opposed a path to citizenship, such as Sen. John Cornyn of Texas. Joining him was fellow Texas Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who hours earlier had told reporters that she thought it was amnesty if the aliens could gain legal status without leaving the country.
Georgia’s two Republican senators, Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson, are also likely to feel heat from voters back home for their support of a path to citizenship, as is Sen. Richard M. Burr, North Carolina Republican, who split with the state’s senior Republican senator, Elizabeth Dole.
Republican leader Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky voted to strip the legalization, but the No. 2 Republican, Whip Trent Lott of Mississippi, voted for the path to citizenship.
The path to citizenship has several steps. As soon as the bill is signed into law, illegal aliens could come forward and obtain probationary status, which would allow them to stay and work in the country. Once a certain number of U.S. Border Patrol agents are hired, fencing is built and an employee-verification system is operating, the aliens could then apply for a Z visa, and eight years later, could apply for a green card — the step immediately before citizenship. Along the way, they would have to maintain a work history and pay processing costs.
A new cost estimate of the bill found that it will cost the federal government $31 billion to $48 billion over the next 10 years. But the legalization and new workers would give Social Security a boost, at least in the short term, adding $69 billion to $85 billion to the fund, according to a new analysis by the Congressional Budget Office.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican, has introduced an amendment to lower the cost by limiting who is eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit. A vote on that was put off until senators return from vacation.
By a voice vote, the Senate agreed to make illegal aliens pay back taxes — something Mr. Bush had once proposed but did not insist on in the grand bargain.
Also on May 24, a survey of 84 “congressional insiders” by the National Journal found that threefourths of Republicans in the House and Senate said they cannot support the Senate bill because it is “not tough enough.” In addition, 17 percent said it was “the best that can be achieved.”
Among Democrats, 45 percent said it was the best deal, 14 percent said it was too restrictive and 17 percent said it was not tough enough. The survey polled 42 Republicans and 42 Democrats.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers — including (from left) Sens. Dianne Feinstein, Lindsey Graham and Mel Martinez — is trying to shepherd the White House-backed grand bargain on immigration through the Senate.