WASHINGTON -- The Senate rejected a California Democrat's plan to allow the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the country to remain, work, and eventually become Americans, preserving a fragile bipartisan coalition needed to pass the bill.
Several lawmakers who voted against the proposal offered by Senator Dianne Feinstein yesterday said they did so reluctantly, but out of necessity to ensure survival of the broader immigration bill. The legislation is expected to win Senate passage today or tomorrow.
``This legislation is on the edge of the ledge as it is," said Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, one of the Republicans supporting a delicate compromise that has kept the bill alive -- letting two-thirds of illegal immigrants stay, but making the other third leave.
Feinstein's amendment, defeated 61 to 37, would have supplanted the compromise that allows illegal immigrants five years or more to stay and work six years and seek legal residency after paying back taxes and fines and showing they were learning English.
Under the compromise, those in the country two to five years would have to go to a point of entry, exit, and file an application to return as a guest worker. Those in the United States less than two years must leave the country, but could apply from their native country to return as a guest worker and wait in line to get a visa.
``I have come to believe that the three-tiered system is unworkable, that it would create a bureaucratic nightmare, and it would lead to substantial fraud," Feinstein said yesterday.
Senator Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat , said the compromise bill could mean losing Latinos in his state who have helped revive some of its small towns by buying houses and starting small businesses.
Feinstein offered the plan just before Senate majority leader Bill Frist set the stage for a preliminary vote today that could quickly bring the bill to a final vote. The bill appears headed for passage.
A bigger fight will come when the House and Senate meet to negotiate a compromise bill. The House passed an enforcement-only bill that makes illegal immigrants felons, cracks down on the hiring of illegal immigrants, and steps up border security. It offers no path to citizenship or a guest worker program, which critics say is amnesty.
``If we are lucky, the House of Representatives will say it's got to be better," said Senator Jeff Sessions, a Republican from Alabama, of the Senate bill after predicting Monday it would pass.