In the first legislative test for the U.S. Senate's bipartisan immigration bill, the Judiciary Committee defeated repeated efforts by Republicans on Thursday to significantly delay legalization for 11 million undocumented immigrants, a central focus of the bill.
The votes on those and other major amendments went largely along party lines, except for two Republican co-sponsors on the committee, Senators Jeff Flake of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who joined with Democrats on critical issues to protect the legalization provision from being derailed by new border security pre-conditions.
The voting pattern, which was expected, left the most conservative members predicting the eventual demise of the legislation. "The committee has voted down every serious border security amendment today," said Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz. "If it doesn't have real border security, it will not pass" Congress, he said.
In roughly eight hours, the committee plowed through about 30 of the 300 amendments it plans on taking up over the next few weeks before it sends the comprehensive immigration bill to the full Senate.
Some of the proposed amendments are designed to appeal to the Democratic majority, as well as many Republicans, as ways to improve the measure, which would be the first comprehensive change to immigration laws since 1986.
Others are seen as possible ways to kill it. Four of the "Gang of Eight" senators who crafted the complex measure are on the committee, and those two Democrats and two Republicans have agreed to jointly oppose any amendment seen as a "poison pill."
All were preparing for a long slog nearly two months after Republican Party leaders urged their rank-and-file to embrace comprehensive immigration legislation in an effort to appeal to Hispanics and other minorities who rebuked Republican candidates in last November's elections, including presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
AVOIDING 'MISTAKES OF THE PAST'
The day began with a warning from the panel's top Republican that he would make the process as long and "arduous" as possible.
"I plan to ask many questions throughout this process," Iowa Senator Charles Grassley warned. "I want to know how the bill doesn't repeat the mistakes of the past." Grassley, in a statement, promised an "arduous" and "robust" debate.
Grassley followed up with an amendment to require that the Obama administration achieve full control of illegal immigration at every part of the U.S. border before any undocumented people now in the United States could be considered for legal status.
As currently written, the bill would boost funding for border security, revamp visa programs to allow for more high- and low-skilled workers and chart a 13-year path to citizenship for many of the 11 million illegal immigrants in the country.
"This amendment would set a standard that would basically delay probably forever" the legalization of the 11 million, argued Democratic Senator Charles Schumer of New York, one of the Gang of Eight.
Later in the day, the committee defeated a move by Cruz to delay legalizing illegal immigrants until 40,000 more border patrol agents were hired to join the 21,000 already there. Opponents said that would cost as much as $40 billion and take 10 years to achieve.
The early test votes will not end what is expected to be a tense argument in Congress over the next few months over whether the 1,969-mile (3,170-km) U.S.-Mexico border is adequately secured and whether illegal immigrants, many with deep roots in the United States, should win a pathway to citizenship.
Several Republicans on the committee - and in the full Senate - are skeptical of legalizing the millions of people who either came to the United States illegally over the past 27 years or overstayed their visas.
Instead, they want a more limited immigration bill that concentrates mostly on other aspects of the legislation, including further securing U.S. borders and creating more visas for skilled workers to help American high-tech companies.
POLL BACKS IMMIGRATION POLICY OVERHAUL
The kickoff of Senate Judiciary Committee debate on the bill came as a new Pew Research Center poll found 75 percent of Americans believed immigration policy needed major changes and 73 percent said there should be a way for illegal immigrants to stay in the United States.
But less than half, 44 percent, said they favored allowing illegal residents to apply for citizenship.
The opening day of the debate reflected both the deep divisions and high hopes surrounding the measure.
Before the session began, a group of spectators with the words "Campaign for Citizenship" emblazoned across their white T-shirts stood in a circle in the hearing room, their hands raised above their heads, for a silent prayer.
The Rev. Alvin Herring of Washington, told Reuters, "It's going to take prayer and it's going to take us acting on our prayers" in order to get immigration legislation enacted.
Despite those prayers, senators quickly got into some heated exchanges.
Republican Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, a vigorous opponent of the bill, contended it would bring 30 million new immigrants into the United States over the next 10 years, costing Americans jobs and hurting the U.S. economy.
Schumer rejected that view and invoking a phrase that haunted last year's Republican presidential campaign, asked, "Do you believe they should all be self-deported?" Romney, who lost to President Barack Obama, had suggested that life for the 11 million should be made so uncomfortable that they would simply "self-deport."
At another stage in the debate, Graham caused a stir when he said immigrants cross the southwestern border with Mexico because they "live in hell holes and they want to live here."
Graham was making the argument that more border fencing would not deter them. Instead, he said the bill's move to improve foreigners' legal access to jobs would help fix security problems.
While the committee rejected several Republican amendments that backers feared could cripple the bill, it approved more than a half dozen, including ones to increase oversight of people entering the United States.
"The bill is better now than it was this morning," Flake told reporters.
During a break, Schumer told reporters he worried "all the time" about a Democratic amendment that Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy has offered that would cover same-sex couples in the bill's new immigration reform policies. He said the Gang of Eight was evenly split over that amendment.
The panel's work could stretch through May, and if it agrees on legislation, the full Senate is likely to debate it throughout June.
Negotiations on a bill in the more conservative Republican-led House of Representatives slogged on.
According to one House source familiar with the negotiations, disagreements remained over several important matters, including how many low-skilled workers should be allowed into the United States for jobs ranging from cooks and hotel maids to construction workers.