Immigration bill progress made

WASHINGTON – A proposed immigration overhaul narrowly survived strong Senate challenges Wednesday, boosting its backers’ hopes that the fiercely debated legislation might soon win passage and advance to the House.

Senators first turned back a Republican bid to reduce the number of illegal immigrants who could gain lawful status. Hours later, they rejected a Democrat’s effort to postpone the bill’s shift to an emphasis on education and skills among visa applicants as opposed to family connections.

Both amendments were seen as potentially fatal blows to the fragile coalition backing the bill, which remains under attack from the right and left. The bill – which would tighten borders and give many of the country’s estimated 12 million illegal immigrants a pathway to legal status – is a priority for President Bush.

The long day and night of votes contained some setbacks for the coalition’s leaders, however. They failed to defeat a Republican proposal to give law enforcement agents access to rejected visa applications, which could lead to the arrest and deportation of some illegal immigrants who otherwise might escape detection.

On balance, however, the coalition’s “grand bargainers” felt they had withstood their toughest challenges. “This means people want a bill very badly,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

The Senate voted 51-46 to reject a proposal by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, to bar criminals – including those ordered by judges to be deported – from gaining legal status. Democrats siphoned support from Cornyn’s proposal by winning adoption of a rival version that would bar a more limited set of criminals, including certain gang members and sex offenders, from gaining legalization. The Senate backed that amendment 66-32.

The Senate also rejected a proposal by Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., that bill supporters called a “killer amendment.” It would have delayed the bill’s shift in favor of attracting foreign workers with needed skills as opposed to keeping families together. Menendez won 53 votes, seven short of the 60 needed under a Senate procedural rule invoked by his opponents.

Menendez’s proposal would have allowed more than 800,000 people who had applied for permanent legal status by the beginning of 2007 to obtain green cards based purely on their family connections – a preference the bill ends for most relatives who got in line after May 2005.

Other amendments defeated Wednesday included a Democratic effort to alter the temporary guest worker program that would be created by the bill.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico wanted to allow workers to come for six consecutive years. The Senate voted 57-41 to reject the amendment, retaining the bill’s call for most guest workers to go home for a year between each of three two-year stints.

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