WASHINGTON – The Senate debate on a sweeping immigration reform legislation came to an abrupt halt Thursday as senators met behind closed doors to try to reach a compromise on Republican amendments to strengthen border security and make other changes in the 1,000-page bill.
Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said public debate on the bill would resume Monday. He added that votes on amendments to the bill could continue through next weekend as the Senate works to complete the bill by the end of this month.
Next week could be crucial in determining whether the bill will succeed. Supporters are trying to attract more Republican votes without losing their liberal allies. The legislation is supported by a rare coalition of labor unions and business groups, Catholics and evangelical Protestants, law enforcement groups and immigrant rights advocates.
Among the proposed amendments that reform advocates are worried about is one by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, that would require the federal government to meet a list of border security and visa requirements before undocumented immigrants could earn green cards or become citizens.
Reid said groups of senators were negotiating in rooms throughout Capitol Hill and at the White House on Thursday to figure out how to go forward with the bill.
“I hope everyone will continue working to come to an agreement on how we can improve this bill,” he said. “I kind of like it the way it is, but I’m not the one going to make that determination.”
President Barack Obama was to meet with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Democratic members of the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” senators who crafted the bill. Leahy is managing the bill on the Senate floor for the Democratic majority.
Reid was about to take up a series of five amendments to the bill Thursday morning when he stopped the proceedings after huddling with Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, who is managing the floor debate for the Republicans.
Shortly before that, senators voted to kill a Grassley amendment that would have required the Department of Homeland Security to maintain effective control of the Southwest border for six months before undocumented immigrants would be able to gain even provisional legal status.
Grassley said his change was necessary to put “enforcement first” and ensure that new waves of immigrants don’t cross the border illegally.
“As we read the details of the bill, it’s clear that the approach taken is legalize first, enforce later — the same mistake that was made in 1986,” Grassley said, referring to the last time Congress passed immigration reform.
But Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., a member of the Gang of Eight, said Grassley’s amendment would undermine the bill’s goal of bringing an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants out of hiding and registering them.
“What are we telling those 11 million?” Schumer said. “If you hide successfully from the police, then maybe five years from now (when the border requirements are met) you can stay here and get the right to work and the right to travel?”
Senators voted 57-43 to table Grassley’s amendment, effectively killing it. Arizona Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake, both Republicans and members of the Gang of Eight, joined most Democrats in opposing Grassley’s amendment.
Another moment of drama came when Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., offered an amendment that would require the Department of Homeland Security to build 350 miles of fencing on the Southwest border before undocumented immigrants could get provisional legal status. A second 350 miles of fencing would have to be completed before the immigrants would be eligible for green cards making them permanent legal residents.
“If we start with this, I think we can convince Americans that Congress is serious (about border security),” Thune said.
But Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., who is chairwoman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee that would fund the fence, said it is a waste of money. Instead, she said the federal government should invest more in helicopters, drones, surveillance equipment and other technology to secure the border.
“I’m not going to waste taxpayers’ money on a dumb fence,” she said. “I’ve been in tunnels under the fence. I’ve watched people climb over the fence. I’m not going to send taxpayers’ money down a rat hole.”
Thune’s amendment did not come to a vote Thursday, but it could be taken up next week.