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Senate Haggles over Immigration Bill Details

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Once these immigrants reach Mexico's northern border with the U.S., they may encounter tighter security. The Senate, last night, approved President Bush's plan to deploy National Guardsmen to the border. It's the latest amendment to an immigration bill that looks like it will be passed by the Senate later this week, even though Republicans are sharply divided over it.

More from NPR's David Welna.

DAVID WELNA reporting:

Since the White House asserts President Bush has the power to send National Guardsmen to the border, the Senate's 83 to 10 vote approving that was largely symbolic. There was far less unanimity though, when Georgia Republican Saxby Chambliss proposed another amendment. It would remove from the immigration bill a provision assuring wages of $7.86 an hour for a million and a half undocumented agricultural workers who'd be given legal status.

Senator SAXBY CHAMBLISS (Republican, Georgia): This is about fairness. It's about equity. It's about ensuring that farm workers who come here under the base bill, which I frankly don't agree with - but if we're going to pass it let's be fair to those employees who come here and work in agriculture. Let's pay them the rate that is prevailing in the area in which they work.

WELNA: But Massachusetts Democrat Edward Kennedy said those prevailing wages often amount to only three or four dollars an hour.

Senator EDWARD KENNEDY (Democrat, Massachusetts): Three or four dollars an hour! We might not have many farmers in Massachusetts, but whoever we have in Massachusetts understand below poverty wages. And three and four dollars an hour for piecework are poverty wages, and they are wrong.

WELNA: Backers of the immigration bill defeated Chambliss' amendment 50 to 43.

Today, the Senate votes on another controversial amendment. California Democrat Dianne Feinstein wants to junk the bill's three-tiered plan, which puts only those illegal immigrants who've been here more than five years on a path to citizenship. Those here less than two years would have to leave. And those here between two and five years, would have to travel to a point of entry to apply for guest worker status.

Senator DIANNE FEINSTEIN (Democrat, California): Why would someone who is already living here clandestinely, working, and already active in their community, voluntarily come forward and register with the Department of Homeland Security and leave the United States to join this program with no certainty they can get back, and no certainty about their family, and no certainty about whether - well, there is no path to earned legalization.

WELNA: Feinstein proposes letting all illegal immigrants who entered before 2006 to remain and pursue citizenship. Meanwhile, a slew of new amendments are being pushed by Republicans who oppose the bill, including Alabama's Jeff Sessions.

Senator JEFF SESSIONS (Republican, Alabama): I hope that we'll be able to get a vote on them. I know that people are saying no, no, we need to move this bill on. We can't go another day. We've got to finish this debate. You guys have had your little amendments. Now the train is moving, get off the track. We're going forward.

WELNA: Indeed, in a move last night to hasten the bill's completion this week, majority leader Bill Frist called for a cloture vote to limit further debate.

David Welna, NPR News, The Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.
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