Story Highlights• Senate votes against amendment to eliminate bill's guest worker program
• Another amendment up for debate would cut program in half
• Many Democrats against guest worker program; Republicans generally favor it
• Senators back off Memorial Day deadline, give bill two weeks of debate
Adjust font size:
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Senate on Tuesday defeated a measure that would have eliminated a guest worker program from the bipartisan immigration legislation announced last week.
The amendment, introduced by North Dakota Democratic Sen. Byron Dorgan, was rejected with a 64-31 vote.
The immigration bill would offer the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants now in the United States a path to citizenship, boost border controls and establish a guest worker program that would grant two-year residency for up to 400,000 people. (Watch one Republican invoke "Schoolhouse Rock" and another get booed )
It is the result of a deal struck after nearly three months of bipartisan talks and was endorsed by the White House last week.
But some Democrats don't like the guest worker program because they think it drives down wages for American workers and creates a permanent underclass of immigrant workers.
Republicans generally favor a strong guest worker program because businesses say they need the labor, but the bill has drawn fire from some conservative critics, who blasted it as "amnesty" for undocumented workers.
"Instead of punishing these people, a few senators and the administration have crafted a large-scale get-out-of-jail-free pass," said Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Kentucky. (Interactive: Immigration bill at a glance)
The Senate still has to debate and vote on an amendment being offered by Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-New Mexico. His proposal would cut the guest worker program in half.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, one of the negotiators who crafted the agreement, said a similar measure to the Bingaman amendment passed last year with 79 votes.
Graham said passage of the amendment "would throw things out of kilter but not completely off track."
There is no word yet on what Republicans will offer as an amendment, but Sen. James Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, said Monday he's hoping it will be his proposal to make English the official language of the United States.
Senate scraps Memorial Day deadline
After saying they wanted to act on the bill before the Memorial Day holiday, Senate leaders set aside two weeks for debate, with a weeklong break for Memorial Day in between.
Some lawmakers complained they have not yet finished reading the bill, which was distributed over the weekend.
"Why are we in the midst of this rush to judgment, this rush to pass this bill?" asked Sen. David Vitter, R-Louisiana. "I believe there's a very simple political answer, and it is that if the American people fully understood what is buried in this bill, there would be a massive outcry against it."
Vitter complained that the legislation was coming to the floor without review by Senate committees or an analysis of its financial impact by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.
And Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Alabama, said the bill "needs some time to be disinfected by the light of day." (Watch how the bill is already being blasted from all sides )
Kennedy says plan is realistic, fair
But one of the bill's architects, Massachusetts Democrat Edward Kennedy, called the plan "strong, realistic and fair."
"It provides tough new enforcement at the border and the work site," Kennedy said. "It allows a realistic path to family security and eventual citizenship for millions of men, women and children already here."
The measure would grant immediate work authorization to undocumented workers who arrived in the United States before January 1, 2007. Heads of households would have to return to their home countries within eight years, with a guaranteed the right to return, and applicants would also have to pay a $5,000 penalty.
Kennedy said that to qualify for legal status, undocumented workers have to work, pay taxes, learn English and "get in line for their green cards" behind people who have already applied legally.
The measure would also give the Department of Homeland Security new tools to crack down on employers who hire illegal immigrants and double the size of the Border Patrol by adding 14,000 new agents.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said the bill is "not perfect" and warned that as written, it could end up creating a "permanent underclass" of guest workers. But he said the measure can be amended during debate.
President Bush backed the measure last week, telling reporters it would treat immigrants "without amnesty but without animosity." A former Texas governor, Bush has long sought to overhaul American immigration policies and successfully courted Latino support during his political career.
A CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll taken in early May found 80 percent support for creating a path for illegal immigrants to seek U.S. citizenship, provided they had a job and paid back taxes. But respondents were closely split on the idea of a guest worker program, with 48 percent supporting the concept and 50 percent opposed.
CNN Capitol Hill producer Ted Barrett contributed to this report.
Quick Job Search