WASHINGTON — With a White House-backed immigration bill on life support in the Senate, the likelihood that Congress can overhaul the nation's tattered immigration system before the onset of the 2008 presidential election year is growing increasingly remote.
The White House, Senate leaders and the bill's supporters insist that the measure can be resuscitated. But thus far they've been unable to bridge a maelstrom of colliding special interests, and the challenges will only intensify as election-year politics complicate their efforts.
"There's a faint pulse there, but it suffered a heavy blow on Thursday," said Daniel Griswold of the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank that embraced Bush's call for a comprehensive overhaul of the nation's immigration laws. "It would be a major surprise at this point if it came back to life."
The 627-page bill was pulled from the Senate floor late Thursday after Democratic and Republican leaders failed to resolve a standoff over GOP demands to submit additional amendments. The bill's collapse dealt a withering setback to President Bush, who'd made a comprehensive restructuring of the nation's immigration laws his top domestic priority.
The president will travel to Capitol Hill on Tuesday to meet with Republican senators to try to get the measure back on track. The president's two top emissaries on the issue -- Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez -- held conference calls Friday with key senators.
"We're just going full speed ahead to get the bill back on the floor and move it forward," Gutierrez said.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., both promised to keep the bill going. Members of a bipartisan coalition that crafted that bill were in discussions with Senate leaders Friday to get past the dustup over amendments. They expressed optimism that the bill could return to the Senate floor within weeks.
Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the Democratic leader of the bipartisan coalition, used a home-state analogy to forecast the bill's future, saying he was reminded of the 1967 Boston Red Sox, who trailed throughout the season and roared back to grab "victory out of the jaws of defeat."
"And that's what we intend to do with the immigration bill," Kennedy said at a Friday news conference with other members of the bipartisan group. "We are not giving up, we are not giving in."
But Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, one of the bill's leading Republican opponents, expressed doubts that the bill would reappear, saying Democratic leaders don't want to risk allowing amendments that could be awkward for their members.
"I don't think Harry Reid has any intention of bringing this bill back up," he said.
After enduring months of declining popularity and faced with growing public opposition to the Iraq war, Bush has looked toward enactment of a major immigration bill as a crowning domestic achievement in the remainder of his second term in office.
But in its attempt to bridge opposing factions, the bill has pleased no one, dividing Democrats and Republicans. Conservatives have assailed the provisions that would legalize millions of undocumented immigrants, while labor-backed Democrats have attacked a guest-worker program that would bring in low-skilled foreign workers.