WASHINGTON -- The Senate agreed to give millions of illegal immigrants a shot at US citizenship yesterday and called for the construction of 370 miles of triple-layered fencing along the Mexican border in an increasingly emotional election-year debate over immigration legislation.
Yuma, Ariz., has become an immigrant smuggling hot spot. A20
''This is not amnesty, so let's get the terms right," Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska lectured fellow Republicans who condemned the bill. ''Come on. Let's stop the nonsense."
''It sort of reminds me of the famous line, 'Methinks thou dost protest too much,' " responded Senator David Vitter, a Republican from Louisiana, who repeatedly described the legislation as an amnesty bill for lawbreakers.
Taken together, the day's developments gave fresh momentum to legislation that closely follows President Bush's call for a comprehensive immigration bill. Senate passage is likely next week, and the White House appeared to be turning its attention to rebellious House Republicans whose support will be needed if a bill is to emerge from Congress this year.
The political wheels turned as demonstrators massed within sight of the Capitol demanding greater rights for immigrants, the latest evidence of rising passions in connection with efforts to write the most significant overhaul of immigration law in two decades.
With the administration eager to emphasize its commitment to border security, officials continued to flesh out details of Bush's Tuesday night announcement that he would send up to 6,000 National Guard troops to states along the Mexican border.
Lieutenant General Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau, raised the possibility that Guard members could be sent over the objections of a state's governor.
''If a governor truly did not want this mission performed in their state, then the option is there for the president and the secretary of defense to federalize the Guard. And then the mission would be conducted, and then it would be without the control of the governor," he said.
Vitter led the drive to strip from the bill a provision giving an eventual chance at citizenship to illegal immigrants who have been in the country more than two years. His attempt failed, 66 to 33, at the hands of a bipartisan coalition, and the provision survived. In all, 41 Democrats joined with 24 Republicans and one independent to turn back the proposal. Opponents included the leaders of both parties, Senators Bill Frist, a Republican from Tennessee, and Harry Reid, a Democrat from Nevada. Thirty-one Republicans and two Democrats supported Vitter's amendment.
The vote to build what supporters called a ''real fence" -- as distinct from the virtual fence already incorporated in the legislation -- was 83 to 16. It marked the first significant victory for conservatives eager to leave their stamp on a measure that looks increasingly like it is headed toward Senate passage.
Construction would send ''a signal that open-border days are over. . . . Good fences make good neighbors, fences don't make bad neighbors," said Senator Jeff Sessions, a Republican from Alabama. He said border areas where barriers are in place have experienced economic improvement and reduced crime.
''What we have here has become a symbol for the right wing in American politics," countered Senator Richard J. Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois. He said that if the proposal passed, ''our relationship with Mexico would come down to a barrier between our two countries."
All Republicans and more than half the Senate's Democrats supported the proposal. A core group of bill supporters who have held off other more serious challenges in the past two days made little attempt to fight this one, judging it far less damaging than the attack on the citizenship provision or an attempt on Tuesday to strip out a ''guest worker" program.
The Senate labored to complete work by next week on immigration legislation that generally follows an outline Bush set out in his nationally televised speech this week.
The measure includes provisions to strengthen border security, create a guest worker program, and crack down on the hiring of illegal immigrants as well as the controversial steps offering illegal immigrants an eventual opportunity to become citizens.
Supporters of the Senate measure credited Bush's Monday night speech with giving fresh momentum to the effort to pass long-stalled legislation.
In the House, the story was different. Republicans pushed through a border security bill last year, and several members of the rank and file have criticized Bush for his proposals.
Seeking to ease their concerns, the White House dispatched Karl Rove to their weekly closed-door meeting, but he did not seem to win many converts. ''I didn't see it as a persuasive event," said US Representative Steve King, a Republican from Iowa.