Border fence vote could require Saturday Senate session

Democrats express little hesitation to run down the clock on the border fence measure.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., on Thursday warned that the chamber is headed toward a Saturday session to pass a bill to construct a fence along the U.S.-Mexican border.

The border bill is one of the majority leader's four goals for the week -- and his last chance to help GOP candidates running on national security issues in November, as well as his own potential 2008 White House bid. Frist told reporters the Senate could remain in session until Saturday to vote on the measure.

However, some senators and GOP aides suggested the chamber could vote earlier if Democrats agree to yield back time and if the Senate wraps up its work on Frist's three other goals: military tribunal legislation and conference reports on the fiscal 2007 Homeland Security and Defense appropriations bills.

Frist has repeatedly touted the border fence legislation as an important first step in securing the country's borders before enacting a comprehensive immigration bill. The proposal to build a 700-mile fence along the U.S.-Mexico border has passed the House.

Senate Democrats on Thursday said they have no qualms about running down the clock on the border fence measure, refusing to vote on it earlier than Saturday. The move presumably plays into the Democrats' campaign strategy of painting the GOP-led Congress as a "Do-Nothing" Congress.

"We want to know Frist's end strategy," Minority Whip Richard Durbin, D-Ill., said Thursday. "There's no reason to make it easier for them. As soon as we would yield back time, he'll throw up two more bills."

Durbin said Frist would continue to bring up bills opposed by Democrats but favorable to the GOP base, such as legislation prohibiting the transfer of minors across state lines to have an abortion. Frist filed cloture on that bill Wednesday, and the Senate might vote on that measure after a final vote on the border fence bill.

Meanwhile, the Senate continued debate Thursday on the military tribunal legislation, with senators rejecting on a 51-48 vote an amendment providing enemy combatants habeas corpus, a legal avenue to challenge indefinite detainment.

In the House, GOP leaders said they also would stick around to approve a few remaining big-ticket items before heading home to court voters in their home districts. With lawmakers expected to approve the National Security Agency wiretapping legislation late this evening, the only major bills left are the Homeland Security appropriations conference report and the defense authorization conference report.

But passage of the defense authorization measure before the end of the week remains uncertain, as it appeared at presstime that Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., would hold firm on his demand the bill include unrelated provisions.

A conference report on port security legislation might see House floor action before the recess. However, Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Thursday House-Senate negotiators have yet to finalize a deal. Boehner said the House could adjourn Friday after voting on numerous suspension bills.

"We need to have a few more conversations, but I think we will be ready to go today and head home early tomorrow," said Boehner. GOP leadership aides were a little less optimistic, with several indicating that the schedule remains in flux.