Immigration Bill Stalls in Senate, Failure for Bush and Senators

The bipartisan immigration reform bill was thwarted Thursday night.

June 8, 2007 — -- The immigration reform bill cobbled together by a bipartisan group of about a dozen senators was a true compromise in the sense that there was something in it for everyone to hate. Thus, senators on the left and right tried to change it with amendments, undoing the compromise.

The amendments, combined with growing opposition to the measure among both conservatives and liberals, essentially killed the bill Thursday night.

It was a defeat for the bipartisan group that had been working on the compromise for three months; the presidential campaign of one from their ranks, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.; Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.; and the unpopular President Bush, not necessarily in that order.

One of the leading critics of the bill, Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., said he fought to defeat it because it wouldn't provide better border security.

"Out our way, we call it 'all hat and no cattle.' Nothing would do anything about security," he said on "Good Morning America."

Shortly before 9 p.m. Thursday, a procedural motion that had come to represent the bill's life or death achieved a vote of 50 against the bill to 45 for it. Even some of those in the original bipartisan coalition that had put the bill together and announced it to great fanfare on May 17 — Sens. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., and Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga. — voted against the measure, joined by 11 Democrats.

Seven Republicans, including McCain, Nebraska's Chuck Hagel and South Carolina's Lindsey Graham voted for the procedural motion in favor of the bill.

"We're going to take the bill off the Senate floor, but there are ways we could do this," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who described one of his colleagues, an author of the bill, as crying in his office. "There could be an agreement. … Hopefully, we could do that in the next several weeks."

The previous two days were marked by the Senate Democratic and Republican leaders wrangling over how many amendments Republicans would be permitted to offer.

Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky blamed the Democrats for not allowing the Republicans to introduce enough amendments.

"I think we're giving up on this bill too soon," McConnell said.

But Reid complained that Republicans were never able to specify how many amendments they wanted to offer, making Democrats suspicious that their intent was to nibble the bill to death.

"We spent so much time on this bill trying to make people happy on this bill who weren't going to vote for the bill anyway," Reid said.

Republicans, conversely, said that a more gifted Senate leader could have satisfied Republican calls for more amendments and achieved the bill he wanted.

The president, overseas at the G-8 Summit, did not immediately comment, but the failure of what he hoped would be a major legislative achievement during his final two years would surely not come as good news for a president eager to line up achievements for the history books.

Earlier in the day, as Reid tried to force the measure to a vote, he said, "Someone should get word to the president that if this bill goes down with the vast majority of the Democrats voting for this … the headline's going to be 'Democrats Vote to Continue the Bill, Republicans Vote Against It, the President Fails Again.'"

The Bush administration was present, in the form of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, working in the vice president's Senate office to save the compromise. Indeed, those who were part of the fragile bipartisan coalition that put together the compromise tried to make it work until the very end, meeting behind closed doors to try to strike a deal to alter the bill to undo changes the amendment process had made.

Some took to the floor to plead that the bill not be killed.

"If we vote no on this legislation," warned Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., one of the bill's authors, "we're returning to the law of the jungle, because that's what it is. It's a jungle on that border."

Kennedy said it's easy for senators to "find the excuses" to vote against the bill.

"We all find the reasons to say no," he said. "We can all find different aspects of this legislation that we differ with, but underneath it ... this is a proposal that is deeply rooted in remedying one of the great national challenges that we have -- broken borders and a broken immigration system."

In general, conservatives thought the compromise was insufficiently strong on border security and too lax on illegal immigrants who are, after all, in the country illegally.

Liberals thought the temporary guest worker program favored by big business would drive down American wages and create a new underclass.

And as each side tried to improve the bill to their liking, members of the bipartisan coalition that cobbled together the compromise lost their patience.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., one of the bill's chief opponents, argued on Thursday that he was "getting a little tired" of hearing from senators who supported his various amendments but voted against them because they would unravel the compromise.

"I wasn't in on that grand compromise," Sessions said. "I wasn't in the room and neither were the American people."

On Wednesday evening, Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., introduced an amendment that would sunset after five years -- or end unless it's reauthorized -- the temporary guest worker program, which had already be reduced from 400,000 workers a year to 200,000.

"Let's sunset this and evaluate what we're doing, what impact it has on American workers," Dorgan said.

McCain, whose presidential campaign may be hurt by his leadership in favor of the immigration compromise, argued that Dorgan's amendment was nothing more than "another attempt to kill this legislation. That's what it will do. That's exactly what this amendment does."

Dorgan's amendment passed by a narrow vote of 49-48. Four Republicans who oppose the measure voting for it, presumably to hasten the bill's demise.

And McCain was right. The addition of the Dorgan amendment to the bill was one of the main reasons some Republicans ultimately voted against the bill.

Dorgan ultimately voted against the bill, as well, along with fellow Democratic Sens. Barbara Boxer of California, Jim Webb of Virginia, Robert Byrd of West Virginia, seven other Democrats and independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

Another amendment that was problematic for Democrats was offered by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and approved by a vote of 57-39 Wednesday evening.

Cornyn's amendment would have stripped confidentiality provisions from applications by illegal immigrants for permanent "Z" visas. Under Cornyn's proposal, information from those applications could be used to track down and deport illegal immigrants who were ineligible for "Z" visas.

Opponents of that amendment, most of them Democrats, argued that it undercut the whole point of the pathway to citizenship, because undocumented immigrants who are eligible for the "Z" visa would not utilize the program if they think information in their application could be used to deport them.

In an incident of less consequence but more spectacle, Graham essentially accused Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., of employing empty rhetoric on the campaign trail after the Democratic presidential hopeful offered an amendment that would sunset after five years the bill's provision to provide a new points-based immigration system.

The points-based system would factor in education levels more so than family connections -- so big business, and in particular the high-tech industry, is behind it. Many liberals think it inherently devalues family in favor of the bottom line.

Graham and others judged Obama's amendment to be a "poison-pill," which would wean away Republican support for the bill. Graham called Obama out, implying that his campaign rhetoric is so much hot air.

"My good friend from Illinois says to those who have worked so hard to get this bill to the point that it's at, 'Nothing personal, but I can't live with this provision,'" Graham said. "You know, bipartisanship is music to the American people's ears. When you're out there on the campaign trail, you're trying to bring us all together. You're trying to make America better. 'Why can't we work together?'"

"This is why we can't work together," Graham said. "Because some people, when it comes to the tough decisions, back away."

Graham said that he and his Republican colleagues "have told our base we're not going to put [illegal immigrants] in jail and we're not going to deport them."

The Obama amendment, "in the name of making the bill better ... means that everybody over here who's walked the plank and told our base, 'You're wrong'" did so for naught, Graham said. "Some of us on the Republican side have been beat up and some of you on the Democratic side have been beat up because we've tried to find a way forward in a problem that nobody else wants to deal with.

"So when you're out on the campaign trail, my friend," Graham concluded, "telling about 'Why can't we come together?' this is why."

Obama took umbrage at the comments, saying his amendment "simply says that we should examine after five years whether the program is working. The notion that somehow that guts the bill or destroys the bill is simply disingenuous, and it's engaging in the sort of histrionics that is entirely inappropriate for this debate."

Obama, his voice angry if measured, said that the notion that his amendment "somehow destroys the bipartisan nature of this bill is simply untrue." Obama's amendment ultimately did not pass.

But enough amendments did for the bill to die, at least for now.

ABC News' Z. Byron Wolf and Avery Miller contributed to this report.