WASHINGTON - An effort to overhaul the nation's immigration laws survived a crucial vote in the Senate on Tuesday, but challenges remain for the controversial legislation.
By a 64-35 vote, lawmakers returned the bill to the Senate floor. Under an agreement approved by party leaders but still being tweaked, about two dozen amendments were slated for debate, including a few that could undermine major parts of the legislation.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said the vote was "the first big test" for the measure and a good omen for future approval. Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff echoed this sentiment, calling it "an important step forward" and adding he is "confident of Senate passage."
Sixty votes were needed for the legislation to move to the floor. Twenty-five Republicans, nine Democrats and one independent voted "no."
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Several lawmakers - including Sens. Jim Webb, D-Va., and Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M. - said they voted to proceed to the bill to allow the amendment process, but were not committed to voting for the final product.
The legislation would give most illegal immigrants a chance at legal status and a pathway to citizenship, create a large guest-worker program and increase border security and workplace enforcement.
Outreach by Bush
Earlier Tuesday, President Bush urged lawmakers to support the bill, saying it was "an historic opportunity for Congress to act."
White House spokesman Tony Snow said that Bush called senators personally about the vote, but did not specify names.
The outreach was the latest in an aggressive lobbying effort by the White House, which is trying to overcome a conservative rebellion on the bill, fueled in part by talk radio. Opponents say the measure amounts to an amnesty for lawbreakers and will only encourage more illegal border crossings.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said that the measure would hurt U.S. workers by flooding the market with foreign laborers and that it will not significantly reduce illegal immigration.
"How can we vote for legislation that we know is not going to work?" he said.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said that the agreement to debate certain amendments was crafted "behind closed doors" and that several lawmakers were shut out, unable to offer their measures.
"Very serious loopholes exist in this bill which strike at the heart of America's national security? Yet the Senate failed to review, and even consider, efforts to fix it in a number of key areas," he said.
Cornyn, who had been part of an original group of negotiators on the legislation, voted against bringing the bill back to the Senate floor.
Two other Republicans who had negotiated the original compromise - Georgia Sens. Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson - also voted "no."
In addition to conservative concerns about amnesty, some on the left don't like the bill's move to lessen the influence of family ties in immigration law in favor of a merit-based system that gives points for work skills, education and other factors.
Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., plans to offer an amendment that would increase points for family ties. Proponents say it's a possible deal breaker.
Also on the table
Another amendment on the table is by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas. It would require all illegal immigrants to return to their home countries before applying for any legal status. The bill requires only heads of households to return if they are seeking permanent legal residency or green cards.
A different version of the so-called "touch-back" provision is also part of an amendment by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
Graham, a key proponent of the immigration bill, reiterated what has become a mantra for supporters - that the status quo is unacceptable.
"It's a national disgrace to allow the current chaos to continue," he said. "While the reform legislation is not perfect, it is a substantial improvement over current law."