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Senate Votes to Revisit Contentious Immigration Bill

June 26, 2007 at 6:05 PM EDT

GWEN IFILL: President Bush had one more chance to rescue the immigration bill from oblivion today, and he took it.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: I view this as an historic opportunity for Congress to act, for Congress to replace a system that is not working with one that we believe will work a lot better.

GWEN IFILL: But even though the Senate voted to revive the bill, it still faces a series of hurdles.

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS (R), Alabama: The American people do not like this bill. Our phones are ringing off the hook.

GWEN IFILL: Alabama Republican Jeff Sessions, who supports the president on almost every other issue but this, has been bombarded with protest. The overwhelming message? Kill this bill.

CONGRESSIONAL AIDE: He does not support the immigration bill in its current form.

CONGRESSIONAL AIDE: He’s certainly against the immigration bill in its current format.

GWEN IFILL: Sessions and a handful of other unhappy Republicans helped stall the bill once, nearly three weeks ago, and said today they will do it again.

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: I don’t know that the American people or members of this body realize it will double the legal immigration flow into America over the next 20 years, giving twice as many green card statuses, legal permanent resident statuses as the current law provides. So we’re not going to get any substantial reduction in illegality; we’re going to double illegality.

It will cost, according to the Congressional Budget Office, the Treasury of the United States $30 billion, not from expenses of enforcement — none of that — but for additional welfare and other benefits that will be paid to those who come into the country illegally.

GWEN IFILL: The last time the Senate weighed in on immigration reform, only seven Republicans voted to continue debate.

SENATOR: The motion is agreed to.

GWEN IFILL: Today, 24 Republicans joined 39 Democrats and one independent to revive the measure, but the decision to return to debate offered no guarantee of final passage. In addition to the bitter opposition from conservatives, several amendments are on the docket that could threaten already fragile bipartisan support.

Texas Republican John Cornyn said Americans doubt the federal government can keep its promise of increased border security.

SEN. JOHN CORNYN (R), Texas: Americans are asking, can they really get all of this done? Can they train, hire, and deploy up to 20,000 additional Border Patrol agents? Can they implement a worker verification system to screen more than 200 million workers throughout the country? Can they build the 370 miles of fencing and 300 miles of vehicle barriers?

GWEN IFILL: Massachusetts Democrat Ted Kennedy, one of the measure’s chief architects, argued that something has to be done.

SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY (D), Massachusetts: The senator from Texas outlined in very considerable detail the kind of security that we believe that this legislation is committed to. Defeat this legislation, and all of that security is out the window.

GWEN IFILL: Even if the bill were to survive yet another Senate test later this week, House opponents have vowed to derail it later. Indiana Republican Mark Souder.

REP. MARK SOUDER (R), Indiana: We’re saying today that it’s dead on arrival in the House. You can’t have secret deals. This has to go through committee. It has to go in pieces. A comprehensive bill will not pass the House. There’s significant Democratic opposition and the overwhelming Republican opposition.

Two views on the bill

Sen. Dianne Feinstein
[W]hat brought the bill back to life is that I think the overwhelming number of American people want a bill. We have a broken system.

GWEN IFILL: The Senate debate continues tonight.

Joining us now to discuss the prospects for the immigration bill in the Senate, one lawmaker who voted yes today and one who voted no. Senator Dianne Feinstein is a Democrat from California, and Senator Chuck Grassley is a Republican from Iowa.

So, Senator Feinstein, you're a Democrat. The Democrats are in control in the Senate. What brought this bill back to life?

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN (D), California: Well, what brought the bill back to life is that I think the overwhelming number of American people want a bill. We have a broken system.

I would say this to Senator Sessions: Every year, 700,000 people come into this country illegally. They disappear; they can't be found, so they can't be picked up and deported. The total right now is 12 million. If we continue our present do-nothing course, which is in effect a silent amnesty, you will have another 7 million people in this country illegally.

What this bill attempts to do -- and it may not be perfect, and we know that -- is to fix the broken borders, provide the interior enforcement, see that agriculture has a regular supply of labor, and provide a pathway to legalization so that the Homeland Security Department knows by photograph, by biometric identification who is in this country. We do not know that now.

There is no system that an employer can use for verification of identity that is absolute. We will try to get one. You know, it's easy to sit back and say, "Look, I'm going to vote against this bill because it isn't perfect." The fact of the matter is: The system today is broken and doesn't work. We've got to repair it.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Grassley, did you vote not to continue the debate today because, as Senator Feinstein says, this bill just isn't perfect?

SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY (R), Iowa: No, it's the process that worries those of us now that are opposed, the process by which the leader of the Senate is going to be a one-person Rules Committee and decide what's going to come up, when it's going to come up.

He just now, almost this very minute, laid down a 350-page document, and we're expected to vote on it. He's going to limit the votes on amendments. He's going to try to table. And we are not going to have the opportunity to have what the Senate was set up to do: to weigh legislation very carefully, more so than the House of Representatives. And it's this process now that we don't like.

Learning from the past

Sen. Charles Grassley
I am one of 22 members that were here in 1986. I voted for amnesty then. And I have found out that you reward illegality and you get more of it.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask you this question, Senator Grassley. If the process somehow were changed in a way that you found palatable, is the substance of this bill anything that you could vote for?

SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY: The substance of the bill is almost everything I can vote for, except for what -- I am one of 22 members that were here in 1986. I voted for amnesty then. And I have found out that you reward illegality and you get more of it.

So we went from about 1 million to 3 million people being here illegally to about 12 million. And that's a situation that I think I've got to learn a lesson from, and I want to make sure that people that follow me 20 years down the road don't end up with a 25 million person problem.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Feinstein, what do you say to a colleague who feels like he made a mistake once and doesn't want to make it again?

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN: Well, I understand how he feels, but doing nothing means you're going to have 7 million more people illegally in this country in the next 10 years. Doing nothing means we don't fix our broken borders.

What is new about this particular bill is it's got $4.4 billion of mandatory spending, which will take place immediately, on certain triggers to fix the border. These are the vehicle fixes, the new fence, the additional Border Patrol that goes into place before any temporary visa, called a Z visa, is given out.

If I could just quickly respond on the point that the very respected Senator Grassley made on process, there are three Republicans who are determined to kill this bill by filibuster. Everybody knows what these amendments are. I just talked with Republicans who have told me all these amendments have been circulated on their side.

The problem is, a point of order lays against some of them. Therefore, when that happens, it stops the process dead. What the leader did was package them together. It's called a clay pigeon, I gather, package them together. They are then separated into individual amendments.

This bill now is being read on the floor. This is a dilatory measure essentially for one hour. It will then be broken up and distributed to every member, and we will proceed with votes.

The current status of the bill

Sen. Dianne Feinstein
All these amendments are going to have a vote. If there's a time agreement that can be agreed to, it will. If not, there will be a motion to table.

GWEN IFILL: But, Senator Feinstein...

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN: There's nothing new in this package. We all know what these amendments are.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Feinstein, just allow me to ask you, especially for people at home who don't follow the arcanities of United States Senate...

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN: Well, you've got that right.

GWEN IFILL: ... are all these rules, and all this process, and this clay pigeon stuff, does it bring this bill any closer to the possibility of actual passage?

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN: Yes, I think it does. There will be a cloture vote. The amendments that will be considered are those amendments that can be considered pre-cloture. Then we'll see if we get a cloture vote. Then there will be more amendments post-cloture.

All these amendments are going to have a vote. If there's a time agreement that can be agreed to, it will. If not, there will be a motion to table.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask Senator Grassley about the status quo issue you raised, which is, if nothing happens, if for some reason this all gets too complicated for a vote to get it out of the Senate, or the House finds a way to stop it down the road, is the status quo, the way things are right now, a better alternative than any fix that's been proposed?

SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY: Well, at least from one standpoint, the border security, the fence, the virtual fence, the real fence, more Border Patrol, and laws that are on the books that can stop illegal people coming here illegally, there's a lot that can be done to do that.

I would go beyond that in the legislation, except the 12 million people as part of the underground. I would make legal immigration more widely acceptable, H-1Bs, as well as the temporary worker program. And I believe people would rather come here legally than illegally. And, eventually, we would have legal workers replace illegal workers.

GWEN IFILL: So you say you would support the -- let me get this right -- what of that would you support? And what of that would you not support?

SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY: Well, first of all, as far as -- the status quo doesn't have to be the status quo. There's enough laws on the books right now and enough process in place to secure the borders that we can do that without passing this bill. There's a lot of things that we need to do for legal immigration that you'd have to pass a bill for, and I'd like to pass that. But you don't have to have amnesty in order to get this job solved.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Feinstein, there is one proposal -- that's one of the many that's being suggested -- which is, would it provide for people who are here illegally to go back to their home countries, apply for what is called a Z visa, kind of a temporary five-year permission to stay in this country. That's, I suspect, what Senator Grassley is referring to when he talks about amnesty. Is it?

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN: There are two, what's called a touchback. There are two touchback amendments. One is in Senator Lindsey Graham's amendment; that I will support. One is Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison; that I cannot support. I think that would bring about real chaos. And I would argue against it.

"A difficult bill for everybody"

Sen. Charles Grassley
[Y]ou still have a massive amount of illegal immigration, even if we pass this bill. And I think that we ought to take those things into consideration.

GWEN IFILL: And the distinction between the two, for people who aren't following this very closely, is one would allow the head of household to reapply for reentry and one would make every single immigrant apply for reentry.

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN: Well, that's correct, plus some. You know, I think the point is this: Look, this is a tough, difficult bill for everybody. Nobody gets everything they want. We've all compromised.

The group that's been working now for months to put together Republicans and Democrats to do a bipartisan bill on immigration isn't an easy thing to do. We now have a vehicle; this is the last chance. You know, Gwen, the train is leaving the station. It's either going to be this bill or -- to this extent, trust me -- nothing else is going to come up prior to the presidential election.

Therefore, what I suggest is that we go ahead and move the bill. The House will hopefully pass a bill. They'll be conferenced. We'll see if the president will sign something. If he will, then the Judiciary Committee, on which both Senator Grassley and I sit, should really provide very active oversight, bimonthly, and watch this bill as it gets carried out, and see if it isn't right in one area, we will make a fix that will remedy the problem.

But to sit back and do nothing, have 700,000 people cross this border year in, year out, illegally, nobody knows who they are or where they came from, there is no identity document that really is able to be used for accurate employer verification -- we correct those things in this bill.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Grassley, if this train is leaving the station, as Senator Feinstein says, is that -- first of all, do you agree with that? And, second of all, if it is, does it bother you?

SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY: All the arguments that she raised were raised in 1986, and I pointed out what a flop that compromise was. I see the same things happening this time, as evidenced by her statement of 700 million -- 700,000 more people coming every year. Yes, but if Senator Sessions was sitting here, he would say that the studies have shown that this is only going to reduce that 700,000 figure by 13 percent.

So you still have a massive amount of illegal immigration, even if we pass this bill. And I think that we ought to take those things into consideration.

But the process here is what's really, really bad. We have one senator in a situation using a process that's seldom used in the United States Senate, making decisions for 99 other senators what can come up. And so the Senate is not being the Senate, where almost everything can be brought up for discussion to make sure that we get a good piece of legislation.

GWEN IFILL: All right, Senator Chuck Grassley and Senator Dianne Feinstein, thank you both very much.