WASHINGTON – Congress’ effort to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws and shore up its borders appeared in peril Friday after a Senate compromise collapsed amid angry partisan finger-pointing.
After weeks of concerted action to find a consensus on how to deal with up to 12 million illegal immigrants now in the country, senators left on a two-week recess with no clear schedule for resuming work on the legislation.
Leading supporters of the compromise bill were downcast. Several acknowledged that Congress might not pass an immigration bill before its two-year session ends in early October.
“I think they’ve diminished dramatically,” Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., said of the chances of resolving the immigration issue. Later, he vowed, “We’re going to come back to this. It’s not going to be the end of the road.”
The mood had been decidedly different 24 hours earlier, when euphoric Senate leaders from both parties announced the compromise, which was co-sponsored by Martinez and Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb. The bill seemed headed for Senate passage.
But a procedural impasse that developed late Thursday between Senate Republicans and Democrats over whether the bill could be amended prevented a final vote. Conservative Republicans who opposed the bill wanted to offer revisions, and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., agreed. But Democrats, fearing that amendments would gut the compromise, refused to go along.
“We got a food fight instead of a bill,” said Frank Sharry, the executive director of the National Immigration Forum, which supported the compromise. “We’re quite concerned that this has become a political football rather than a policy debate.”
The delay cast uncertainty on President Bush’s call for a comprehensive overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws and undoubtedly will ratchet up a public outcry for swift congressional action on one of the nation’s most emotional issues. Latino groups are organizing demonstrations in scores of cities Monday to protest a version of the bill that the House of Representatives passed, which would toughen laws against illegal immigrants.
Senate leaders said they expected to resume work on the compromise after Congress returns April 24, but the next steps were unclear late Friday.
“It’s going to be a tough uphill battle now,” said Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., the Senate’s assistant Democratic leader.
The Martinez-Hagel compromise embraced the basic concepts of a comprehensive bill that the Judiciary Committee had approved March 27 and a similar measure sponsored by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.
It would establish a guest worker program and provisions to put nearly 10 million illegal immigrants on a path toward permanent legal status, while requiring those in the country two years or less to return home.
It also would toughen enforcement and border security, boosting fines on the employers of illegal immigrants and adding 12,000 border patrol agents over the next five years.