WASHINGTON -- The difficult road ahead for a comprehensive overhaul of immigration law became more evident Thursday, as Republican critics mounted a sustained assault on the legislation, demanding that it include considerably greater border security measures before legalizing any undocumented immigrants.
The contentious start of the debate in the Senate, where the bill's prospects for approval are considerably better than in the House, was a clear signal of tough times ahead for the legislation.
During a 71/2-hour hearing, the Judiciary Committee wrestled over 32 proposed changes focused on border security and control, as the committee began a long and grueling amendment process expected to continue for weeks.
Proponents managed to resist the most significant changes, as a majority of senators voted to reject proposals from GOP members that would require the government to build 700 miles of double-layered fencing and maintain complete operational control of the entire southern U.S. border before allowing illegal immigrants to gain citizenship.
As each proposal was defeated, frustration mounted and tempers flared among the most conservative Republicans.
"The committee has voted down every serious border security amendment presented," said Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who lost his bid to scrap the legislation's entire border control section and substitute his own. "This committee has consistently rejected any attempt to put real teeth in it, and if it does not have that, in my opinion, this bill will not pass."
In all, the panel adopted 21 amendments, including eight offered by Republicans. Among them was a measure from Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, one of the bill's fiercest critics, that expanded a requirement that the government apprehend 90 percent of those attempting to cross the border illegally from just high-risk sectors to the entire Southwest border.
Democrats, and two panel Republicans who helped negotiate the legislation, hailed the results as evidence that they were committed to a bipartisan process to improve the bill that represents the most far-reaching changes in the nation's immigration system in three decades. They characterized the GOP border-security offensive as an effort to lard the bill with unattainable security measures and make it more difficult for the nation's 11 million undocumented immigrants to gain legal status.
"Senator Cruz is opposed to a path to citizenship," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., one of the eight senators who negotiated the measure. "No matter what we put in there in terms of border security, he cannot support any bill that has a path to citizenship. ... Let's not keep bringing up this false issue that we're doing nothing on border security."
Border control was the opening flash point in a debate over an 844-page bill that also contains new measures to increase visas for low- and high-skilled workers and eliminate some categories of family visas, which are likely to spark further clashes among Republicans and Democrats.
Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., has said he hopes to finish debate on as many as 300 amendments by month's end and send the bill to the full Senate in early June. President Barack Obama has backed the bill in hopes of avoiding the bitter partisanship that helped sink his gun-control and deficit-reduction efforts.
Some Republicans insist that they must be certain that border control is a priority in any legislation before letting undocumented immigrants earn legal status. That has opened a divide within the GOP, as moderates and conservatives battle over what a secure border would look like.
The bill, developed by four Democrats and four Republicans, provides $7 billion in funding for additional fencing, aerial drones and border agents. Many Republicans have argued that it is not enough, and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who helped negotiate the bill, has said he agrees that border provisions must be strengthened if the bill is to have a chance in the GOP-controlled House.
Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., noted the government spent $18 billion on border security in 2011. "That's more than we spend on all other federal law enforcement combined," he said.
Mr. Rubio, who is not on the Judiciary panel, celebrated the adopted amendments in a series of press releases declaring that they will make the border provisions stronger.
But a proposal from Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, that would give Congress authority to approve or reject Homeland Security's border control plans was rejected by the bill's proponents, who worried that such a measure would allow lawmakers to hold up the process indefinitely.