Immigration issues sidetrack Senate work on spending bill

The contentious issue of immigration reared its head Wednesday during the Senate's debate over the annual Homeland Security appropriations bill, essentially grinding floor action to a halt and forcing Democrats to use procedural tactics to defeat a Republican-backed proposal.

Debate over the fiscal 2008 spending bill, which would allocate $37.6 billion to the Homeland Security Department, bogged down as lawmakers grappled with an amendment from Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. and Judd Gregg, R-N.H.

The Graham-Gregg amendment proposed adding $3 billion more to the bill and included specific language to crack down on illegal immigrants in the United States, including giving law enforcement agencies new powers to arrest and deport illegal aliens.

Unable to negotiate an agreement on the amendment, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., raised a point of order against it, saying it would add policy legislation to an appropriations bill. The point of order was sustained by a 52-44 vote, essentially killing the amendment.

Reid said the GOP senators were attempting to "re-legislate immigration reform" and proposing measures that would "take away basic rights that people have."

After the defeat of the Graham-Gregg amendment, Reid and Republicans tried to negotiate an alternative agreement under which the additional $3 billion for border security would still be added to the bill, while dropping the legislating language.

But the effort broke down when Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, objected to the agreement because it did not include language directing the Homeland Security Department to target foreigners in the country who have overstayed their visas.

"I'm very sorry there will not be the money for border security, but that's the way it is," Reid said.

On another front, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., said he wants to offer an amendment that would beef up border security combined with a bill creating a temporary worker program for agriculture workers and another measure to put illegal immigrant children on a path to citizenship.

"If you're going to have border security you're going to have to have some way for these workers to get in there," Kennedy said about farm workers.

The citizenship proposal would apply to students who are illegal immigrants if they entered the United States before they turned 16 and lived in the country for at least five years. They would be granted temporary legal status for six years during which they must attend college or serve in the military. They would then be eligible to receive a green card.

It was not clear late Wednesday what kind of amendment Kennedy would offer, if any. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., asked senators to include the farm workers measure in the upcoming farm bill.

After disposing of the Graham-Gregg amendment, Reid pleaded for senators to complete work on the Homeland Security spending bill.

"This afternoon we're back in the bog trying to claw through legislation we shouldn't have to," he said. "Gee, this is not the way to go."

He added: "I remind everyone we still have a lot to do ... We have to finish this bill."

An amendment from Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., would allocate $300 million to help state government comply with the so-called Real ID law, which requires states to begin issuing secure driver's licenses by next May. The amendment would be offset by cuts to other Homeland Security programs.

An amendment from Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., and ranking member Susan Collins, R-Maine, would allocate $100 million to help state and local governments buy interoperable communications equipment. It would be offset by an across-the-board cut of 0.27 percent.

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