WASHINGTON -- Efforts to rewrite the nation's immigration laws collapsed yesterday in the Senate, renewing doubts about Congress' ability and willingness to tackle the complex, emotional issue in an election year.
A tenuous bipartisan compromise, announced a day earlier, fell apart when Democrats rejected conservative Republicans' demands for numerous changes, some designed to limit the number of illegal immigrants who could become eligible for citizenship. Trapped between the conservatives' demands and the Democrats' parliamentary powers to limit amendments, GOP leaders conceded a setback. But they vowed to try again when Congress returns from a two-week recess.
Several senators, including Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., expressed optimism. But the second-ranking Democrat, Richard Durbin of Illinois, said, "It's going to be a tough, uphill battle now."
Mr. Frist had hoped to settle the issue ahead of massive protests scheduled for next week in Washington and other cities by Latino groups and their allies. They oppose a House-passed measure that theoretically would deport the nation's 11 million illegal immigrants, while penalizing their employers. Some Democrats say the demonstrations will increase pressure on the Senate to pass more lenient legislation, but others say the delay might give opponents time to scrutinize the proposals and raise objections.
Most senators agree with House members that border security should be strengthened, and the bills being considered would pour money into that cause. Unlike the House, a majority of senators say some longtime undocumented workers should be given a chance to attain legal status -- and possibly citizenship -- as a nod to the nation's demand for low-wage employees and to the unfeasibility of apprehending and deporting millions of people.
The problem lies in crafting a plan that can hold at least 60 senators, the number needed to block filibusters. Mr. Frist thought he had achieved the feat Thursday with a bill to divide illegal immigrants into three categories. Those in the country five years or longer would begin a route to citizenship if they learned English and paid taxes and fines. Those in the country two to four years could apply for legal status after returning to a border crossing for document processing. The others would be subject to deportation.
Several Republicans, led by Sens. John Cornyn of Texas and Jon Kyl of Arizona, insisted on numerous amendments. Among other things, they would deny legal status to immigrants who had committed crimes or skipped deportation hearings.
Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the amendments would allow Mr. Cornyn, Mr. Kyl and their allies to gut the bill's chief elements.
With any senator empowered to block prompt introduction of amendments to the compromise bill, Mr. Reid agreed to only three. Mr. Frist demanded at least 20. Meanwhile, anticipating a fierce battle with the House when it comes time to reconcile the two chambers' immigration bills, Mr. Reid insisted that the Senate conferees be the 18 Judiciary Committee members. The panel last month approved a measure similar to the Frist-backed compromise.
Mr. Frist said Mr. Reid had "put a stranglehold" on efforts to pass the compromise bill, whose chief sponsors are Sens. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., and Mel Martinez, R-Fla. Democrats dismissed the criticism and cited the Republicans' inability to reach accord in their 55-member caucus.
With the amendment process unresolved, the Hagel-Martinez bill's demise came when 38 senators -- all Democrats -- voted to choke off debate and proceed to a vote on the bill. That was 22 short of the number needed. Sixty senators -- 54 Republicans and six Democrats -- voted against "cloture."
Mr. Frist said the Judiciary Committee will begin to rework the Hagel-Martinez bill when Congress reconvenes.