WASHINGTON -- In the first and only vote Thursday on the immigration bill, senators turned back a Republican measure that would have delayed a path to citizenship for those in the country illegally until the border with Mexico is fully secure.
Republicans still plan to offer several other measures to enhance border security, but this one, from Iowa Sen. Charles E. Grassley, was one of the most hard-line of the proposals. The 57-43 vote to defeat the amendment was an imprecise test of whether the Senate will find the 60 votes to pass the bill.
Party leaders outside Congress continued pushing Republican lawmakers to soften their opposition to the overhaul, which needs GOP votes to pass. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., worked behind the scenes to come up with a compromise on border security.
Mr. Rubio was one of four Republicans and four Democrats who drafted the bill. All four of those Republicans voted to table Mr. Grassley's amendment.
Two conservative Democrats, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III and Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor, joined all the other Republicans to back the tougher approach to border security.
In a meeting at the White House, top Democratic senators discussed other changes that could be made to draw more GOP support for the bill, which President Barack Obama supports.
One of the next amendments that will come up, from South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the No. 3 Republican, would prevent immigrants from starting on the path to citizenship until 350 miles of a long-promised 700-mile double-layer fence is built. They could not gain permanent legal status until the rest of the fence is completed. Only 36 miles of fencing stands today, he said.
"One of the best , simplest, plainest, most straightforward ways of doing that is to build the fence," said Mr. Thune, estimating the cost at $3.2 million a mile. "It makes perfect sense to the American people."
But Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., who has influence over money for the fence as chairwoman of the Appropriation Committee's homeland security subcommittee, said her visits to the border showed that immigrants can still find ways to get through. She said a smarter approach that uses technology is needed to stop "ingenious" immigrants. "I'm not going to waste taxpayer money on a dumb fence," she said.
Under the bipartisan legislation, immigrants could gain provisional legal status six months after the Department of Homeland Security develops a plan to stop 90 percent of the illegal crossings from Mexico. After 10 years, if the plan is "operational," and if immigrants have paid fines and fees and remain in good standing, they could reach permanent legal status. Mr. Grassley's proposal would have prevented immigrants from making the initial transition to provisional status until the border was fully secure, a goal experts say would leave immigrants in a gray zone.
To win more support from Republicans, Mr. Rubio wants to give Congress, not the Homeland Security Department, a larger role in devising a border plan. "We need to detail the border plan in the bill, so we don't leave it to chance," he said on the radio show, "so that if this bill passes, senators won't just be voting for immigration reform; they will be voting and approving a border plan they know will work."