Washington The Senate agreed to give millions of illegal immigrants a shot at U.S. citizenship and backed construction of 370 miles of triple-layered fencing along the Mexican border Wednesday. Prospects for legislation clearing Congress were clouded by a withering attack against President Bush by a prominent House Republican.
"Regardless of what the president says, what he is proposing is amnesty," said Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., the lawmaker who would lead House negotiators in any attempt to draft a compromise immigration bill later this year.
Bush stood his ground. "The Republican Party needs to lead on the issue of immigration," he told an audience of GOP donors, "...America can be a lawful society and a welcoming society and we don't have to choose between the two."
The blast by Sensenbrenner, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, came on the day the White House dispatched top presidential aide Karl Rove to ease the concerns of rebellious House Republicans and GOP senators clashed on the Senate floor.
"This is not amnesty, so let's get the terms right," Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska lectured fellow Republicans who condemned the bill. "Come on. Let's stop the nonsense."
Rhetoric aside, the votes on the Senate floor gave fresh momentum to legislation that closely follows Bush's call for a broad bill. The measure includes steps to secure the borders, the citizenship-related provisions for illegal immigrants and a new guest worker program for as many as 200,000 people a year. Senate passage appears likely next week.
The political wheels turned as demonstrators massed within sight of the Capitol demanding greater rights for immigrants, the latest evidence of rising passions in connection with efforts to write the most significant overhaul of immigration law in two decades.
The Senate bill was denounced on the House steps by some immigrant-rights advocates who view it as wholly inadequate. Members of the March 25th Coalition, which helped organize the massive street rallies and boycotts, termed the Senate bill "repressive" and said they'd settle for nothing less than legalization for all illegal immigrants and near-unlimited visas for foreigners who want to come in the future.
"We're not going to compromise," said Jesse Diaz, a March 25th Coalition organizer.
The rift in Congress over immigration is mirrored within the immigrant-rights movement, which isn't speaking or lobbying in concert. Just hours after the March 25th Coalition's press conference, other Hispanic groups that view the Senate bill far more favorably than the House approach rallied on the National Mall to press for a comprehensive immigration fix.
Several hundred immigrant advocates crisscrossed Capitol Hill on Wednesday, pressing their case for a legalization plan.