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Senate Refuses to Halt Debate on Immigration Bill

The Senate’s bipartisan immigration overhaul bill failed its first major test today, when Senators voted 34-61 against bringing debate on the measure to a close, with several Democrats joining most Republicans in opposing cloture.

The setback, while not unexpected, sent many of the bill’s original crafters and supporters back to working furiously to try to revive the measure, which was months in the making and spent more than two weeks on the Senate floor. As such, a band of Democrats and Republicans were hoping a second try at moving the bill forward later today would succeed.

“This is a worthwhile effort,” said Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.) on the floor this morning. “The question is, do we have the courage, the tenacity and the ability to get anything done anymore?”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) indicated that he would pull the bill from floor consideration if he does not get the 60 votes needed to cut off debate at this afternoon’s repeat vote. Reid used a procedural tactic after the first vote to limit debate, or invoke cloture, failed in order to allow the Senate to revisit the question again.

“I know people would like to stay on this bill forever, but that’s not going to happen,” Reid said.

Added Senate Democratic Caucus Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.), “We can’t keep going on forever.”

Still, Reid said he hoped the time between the two cloture votes today would provide negotiators with enough time to come up with a deal that could clear the way for final passage. Sources anticipated the second vote would occur around 5 p.m. today.

Lott also said he too was eyeing a breakthrough.

“We’ll see what happens between now and then,” he said.

The complex immigration bill, which seemed to gain new strength Wednesday, hit a crisis moment late Wednesday night when Senators narrowly cleared a controversial amendment to sunset a key guest-worker program in the measure.

The amendment, sponsored by Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), passed the chamber 49-48. It would place a five-year limit on the immigration bill’s provision to allow 200,000 temporary workers per year.

But Lott suggested Thursday morning that the Dorgan amendment need not prevent Republican Senators — who are generally supportive of the bill — from supporting it on final passage. He said Republicans still have options for changing the bill, even if it clears the Senate with the Dorgan language intact.

For example, Lott said GOP Senators could block the measure from going to conference with the House unless they get assurances that the Dorgan proposal would be modified or eliminated.

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