Immigration stalemate obscures flurry of activity

Senate Republicans and Democrats loudly blamed each other for a stalemate on an immigration overhaul yesterday afternoon, even as many of them spent most of the day working behind the scenes to find a compromise that could attract a filibuster-proof majority.

The Senate appeared headed for a showdown vote today on a rare Democrat-sponsored motion to invoke cloture on a Judiciary Committee-approved version of the legislation that includes border-enforcement provisions, a guest-worker program and a procedure for illegal immigrants now in the country to become citizens.

Republicans blasted their Democratic counterparts for blocking consideration of amendments to that measure, which was offered as a substitute amendment to the underlying, enforcement-only bill. Critics say the Judiciary bill would give amnesty to illegal immigrants.

The immigration issue cuts across the party divide and has exposed fault lines in each caucus, complicating the efforts of those who seek a compromise.

“The course we’re on is to leave here in a few days having accomplished nothing for the American people,” Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), the sponsor of the enforcement bill, said on the floor as most of his GOP colleagues sat and listened.

“Maybe something will happen before tomorrow’s cloture vote,” said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

Refusal by Democrats to allow consideration of amendments that they said would alter the underpinnings of the Judiciary-approved legislation — and their unusual cloture motion — puts majority Republicans in the reversed role of arguing that Democrats were unfairly limiting floor debate.

“Please put the politics aside,” Frist said.

Several Democratic senators, including Reid, Minority Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.), Edward Kennedy (Mass.) and Ken Salazar (Colo.), had made their way to Frist’s Capitol suite earlier in the day to discuss immigration. Kennedy, Durbin and Salazar were involved in a series of meetings with Frist that also included Republican Sens. Arlen Specter (Pa.), Pete Domenici (N.M.), John McCain (Ariz.), Mel Martinez (Fla.) and Chuck Hagel (Neb.).

McCain and Kennedy are the chief authors of the provisions creating a guest-worker program and a means for illegal immigrants to become citizens.

Martinez and Hagel have proposed a tiered system of handling illegal immigrants currently in the country, with those who have been in the country for longer facing fewer obstacles to citizenship. But many conservatives oppose such a “path to citizenship,” saying it gives amnesty to people who have broken the law.

Some participants in the bipartisan negotiations said the existence of the talks signaled progress. Frist’s office meetings had been limited to Republican senators earlier in the week.

Still, some lawmakers said there was a lot of work left to be done before a deal could be struck.

“We’ve got a way to go,” Domenici said after emerging from one meeting yesterday.

“It’s all being done in a pressure-cooker,” Specter said.

Republicans and Democrats alike said action was being delayed by a desire among lawmakers to put off making difficult decisions.

“Most members of Congress avoid pain as long as possible,” Durbin said.

McCain urged his colleagues to debate and vote on immigration. “We’re here to take tough votes,” he said.

Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) warned that Democrats would be cut out of the process if a deal could not be struck before sunrise today.

In negotiating with the various parties, Frist is working to find a solution that will attract most Republicans and some Democrats. Supporters of McCain-Kennedy believe a majority of senators supports the Judiciary bill. McCain said he would oppose cloture.

“It is Senator Reid’s goal to have the vote [this] morning,” Reid spokesman Jim Manley said.