WASHINGTON – The Senate set the stage Thursday for a vote by week’s end on a bill to wall off 700 miles of the U.S. border from Mexico, but a last-minute push by senators concerned about the severe shortage of agricultural workers could derail the measure’s progress.
Senators agreed, by a vote of 71-28, to limit debate on the House-passed measure – a tally that many see as an indicator of the outcome of a final vote, which could come as early as today.
But a last-minute move by Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Larry Craig, R-Idaho, to add a guest worker program for agricultural workers has complicated matters.
The two senators will meet with Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., this morning to press him yet again to consider adding their AgJobs proposal, intended to help farmers faced with rotting crops and thousands of dollars in lost revenue because they are unable to find enough workers to harvest their crops this year.
The senators’ move creates a dilemma for Frist, eager for victories to counter criticism about the GOP’s “do-nothing Congress.” It also highlights the long-standing tension over immigration that is coming to a head in these waning days of the 109th Congress.
Republicans have built a broad-based election campaign based on security, insisting their party can make America safer both at the border and in the fight against terrorism. As part of this, House Republicans insist on an enforcement-only approach to immigration.
If Frist adds an agricultural guest worker program to the fence bill, the House is very unlikely to support it. If he refuses to add the agricultural program, as he has done for some time now, he will face strong opposition from Feinstein and Craig, who could rally other lawmakers to vote against the measure. Craig said 80 lawmakers support the AgJobs proposal.
On Thursday night, Craig said he believed there would be enough votes in the House to support the AgJobs proposal, but he acknowledged the tensions surrounding immigration. “The House is in such a political panic about this issue,” he said.
In introducing the Secure Fence Act of 2006, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., described fences as “absolutely effective” at stopping illegal immigration and reducing crime.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., blasted the measure. “They think this simple bumper sticker will work, but it won’t,” he said. “It’s a crass political effort by those more interested in saving their seats than securing the border.”
Approval of a fencing requirement could represent a victory for the House in its ongoing battle with the Senate over how immigration laws should be overhauled.