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Immigration bill survives Senate challenges

Story Highlights

• Senate turns away multiple amendments to immigration bill
• Senate kills proposal to send illegal immigrants home before legalizing
• Bill could come up for final vote by the end of the week
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A delicately crafted immigration reform bill emerged largely unscathed from a day of legislative wrangling in the Senate on Wednesday, with supporters beating back a number of potentially fatal amendments in what one lawmaker likened to "trench warfare."

The Senate began working through a list of 27 amendments to the bill, which Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said would come up for a final vote by the end of the week.

Proponents won a major victory with defeat of an amendment removing the bill's most controversial feature -- a path to legalization and eventual citizenship for illegal immigrants already in the country, which critics charge amounts to amnesty. (Watch challenges rise and fall Video)

"I think most people will recognize that citizenship is the most precious gift America can provide," said Sen. Kit Bond, R-Missouri, the sponsor of the amendment. "There are many of us who believe it should not serve as a reward to those who broke the law."

Senators voted 56-41 to table his amendment, effectively killing it. However, in a sharp illustration of the political heartburn the "amnesty" debate is causing Republicans, Bond's proposal was supported by 33 of the Senate's 49 GOP members, along with eight Democrats.

Also defeated Wednesday was an amendment by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, that would have required adult illegal immigrants to return to their home country within two years in order to apply for a new type of visa that will allow them to stay in the United States indefinitely.

Hutchison said the change would "send the major message ... that you cannot come to our country and stay illegally and eventually get regularized without ever having to apply -- according to the law -- from your home country."

But opponents of the amendment said the so-called "touchback" requirement would render the program largely useless.

"What immigrant is going to show up and register for a program if he has to take his chances on leaving the country and coming back in before he gets some kind of immigration status?" said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California. "What immigrant is going to report to deport?"

In the end, the Hutchison amendment was tabled on a 53-45 vote.

Senators also turned back two Democratic amendments, from Sens. Chris Dodd of Connecticut and Robert Menendez of New Jersey, that would have made it easier for immigrants to bring family members from their home countries to the United States.

Liberal critics of the immigration bill have complained about a new points-based system that would sharply reduce the role family ties now play in decisions about who can come into the country.

By a 79-18 vote, senators shot down an amendment by Sen. Jim Webb, D-Virginia, that would have limited the legalization process to illegal immigrants who have been in the country at least four years, rather than covering all of them in the country at the end of 2006.

Wednesday's wrangling on the Senate floor was conducted under seldom-used rules designed to keep opponents of the immigration reform bill from using the legislative process to block it.

All of the changes were being handled as one overall amendment, with separate votes on each proposal, allowing leaders to keep critics of the bill from offering their own amendments from the floor.

Republican opponents have strongly objected to the procedure, even though it was agreed to by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky.

"[We're] frustrated about our ability to exercise our rights as duly elected officials," said Sen. David Vitter, R-Louisiana.

The Senate could vote as soon as Thursday on a procedural motion to cut off debate and move to a final vote, which requires 60 votes to pass.

CNN Correspondent Dana Bash contributed to this report.

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A U.S. Border Patrol agent closes a hole cut in a fence along the U.S.-Mexican border Tuesday in El Paso, Texas.

MAJOR AMENDMENTS

Some major amendments that have been or will be considered before a final vote:

• Crack down on people who remain after expiration of their visas, require that that all illegal immigrant heads of household seeking lawful status return home as long as they meet a certain wealth threshold -- offered by Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, Jon Kyl, R-Arizona, and Mel Martinez, R-Florida.

• Limit legalization to unlawful immigrants who have been in the country four years or more, by Sen. Jim Webb, D-Virginia.

• Require all illegal immigrant heads of household to return home within two years, before gaining any kind of lawful status, offered by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas.

• Award more points in the merit-based green card allocation system for family ties to U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents, by Sen. Robert Menendez, D-New Jersey.

• Replace the worker identification program, narrowing the group of employees that businesses would have to check, by Sens. Max Baucus, D-Montana, Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and Barack Obama, D-Illinois.

• Deny illegal immigrants the chance to get green cards, by Sen. Kit Bond, R-Missouri.

--Associated Press

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