WASHINGTON – The Senate voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to limit debate on election-year immigration legislation, clearing the way for final passage later this week of a bill that calls for tougher border security as well as an eventual chance at citizenship for millions of men and women in the country illegally.
The vote to advance the measure was 73-25, 13 more than the 60 needed.
Despite the controversy surrounding the bill, the outcome was not a surprise. Even some of the bill's opponents said they were satisfied they had been given ample opportunity over past week to try and give the bill a more conservative cast.
Final passage would set the stage for a difficult negotiation with the House, which passed legislation last year that exposes all illegal immigrants to criminal felony charges.
President Bush has repeatedly urged Congress to approve an immigration bill that generally follows the approach taken by the Senate, and some senators expressed optimism that a deal could be reached.
"The politics of solving this problem is better than the politics of doing nothing," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
"Does someone have a better approach? Not yet. But we're still open for business," said Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Across the Capitol, senior White House strategist Karl Rove met for the second straight week with the GOP rank and file. Asked whether he had made any progress, he told reporters afterward, "Could be."
In the Senate, the final maneuvering was evident.
GOP Sen. Mitch McConnell sought to add to the bill a requirement that all voters in federal elections be required to present a valid photo identification.
"It is nonsense to suggest that somehow a photo ID for one of our most sacred rights should not be protected by a requirement that is increasingly routine in almost all daily activities in America today," said the Kentucky lawmaker, second-ranking Republican.
But Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., likened the proposal to a poll tax or a requirement for voters to pass a literacy test. "Now is not the time and this is not the place to consider an amendment that may disenfranchise a million or more poor, minority, disabled, and elderly voters — all of them American citizens," he said.
On a vote of 49-48, opponents failed to kill the measure. But it remained in limbo, evidently doomed by arcane rules that took effect once the Senate voted to limit debate.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., predicted before the vote that the bill would receive "not overwhelming support but very strong support" and that a legislative compromise would be reached with the House.
"The problem is too big, with millions of people coming across the border and with hundreds dying as they come across the border," Frist said on NBC's "Today" show. "We as a governing body cannot simply turn and look the other way and say we're not going to do anything about it."
On Tuesday, the Senate called for tougher employer penalties on businesses that hire illegal workers. The vote was 58-40.
Employers who do not use a new computerized system could be fined $200 to $600. The system would include information from the Social Security Administration, the Internal Revenue Service and Homeland Security Department.
There would be $20,000 fines for hiring illegal immigrants once the new screening system is in place, double the current maximum. Repeated violators could be sentenced to prison terms of up to three years.
Congress passed employer sanctions as part of the 1986 amnesty law, but they were never fully enforced and workers and employers got around them with fraudulent documents.
The Senate bill requires employers to check Social Security numbers and the immigration status of all new hires within 18 months after money is provided to the Homeland Security Department to expand the electronic system for screening workers.
Workers' information would have to be submitted to the electronic system within three days after the worker is hired. The Homeland Security Department would have to confirm the worker is legal or tell the employer the worker can't be immediately confirmed as a legal worker within 10 days.
The measure provides workers opportunities to contest the system's determination and to correct information that may be incorrectly flagging them as illegal workers. It also protects employers from liability if the screening system makes a mistake.
The House passed a bill in December that would impose fines on employers of undocumented workers ranging from $5,000 to $40,000. But, unlike the Senate bill, the House measure would require employers to screen all employees — an estimated 140 million people — instead of only new hires.