WASHINGTON – With Republicans still deeply divided, Senate Democrats moved Tuesday to force a showdown over immigration reform, filing a motion to end debate and vote on a bill that provides the option of citizenship to guest workers and illegal immigrants already in the United States.
The move means the Senate will have to vote Thursday on whether to end debate. That in turn could force action on final passage three days later for the bill now on the Senate floor, which has White House support but does not command a majority among Republicans in either chamber of Congress.
In essence, Democrats sought to take advantage of GOP divisions by forcing a vote on the relatively moderate approach now on the Senate floor before the Republican majority could hammer out agreement on a more restrictive measure.
Republicans, who failed again Tuesday to bridge their differences on the immigration proposals, reacted angrily to the Democratic maneuvering.
“This was premature and immature given the velocity of the debate,” said Eric Ueland, chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn. Frist has said he wants to complete legislation by Friday, and failure to reach that goal would be a blow to his image as an effective leader at a time when he is preparing to run for president.
Although many Republicans have not made up their minds, fewer than half are believed to support the current bill, which was passed by the Judiciary Committee last week with some Republican support.
Earlier in the day, Democrats had used parliamentary procedures to block debate on an amendment that could make some or all visitors who overstay their visas ineligible for legalization or citizenship.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the Senate’s second-ranking Democratic leader, said all but a handful of the Senate’s 44 Democrats and one independent support the bill as currently drafted. In the Senate, 60 votes are needed to ensure passage and override a possible filibuster by opponents.
“If they can produce 20-plus votes, we can get a bill this week,” Durbin said of the Republicans.