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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Beyond Iraq, the talk of Capitol Hill today was immigration. The far-ranging immigration bill won a new lease on life by a 64 to 35 vote. The Senate agreed to resume debate on the measure, which is a top priority of the Bush administration. The president himself urged senators to vote in favor of the bill saying the status quo is unacceptable, but the measure still has a long way to go.

And as NPR's Brian Naylor reports, its final passage is by no means assured.

BRIAN NAYLOR: What a critic of the bill called arm-twisting by the White House continued up until the last minute today as President Bush lobbied for the immigration bill in his speech this morning.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: I view this is an historic opportunity for Congress to act, for Congress to replace a system that is not working with one that we believe will work a lot better.

NAYLOR: The vote today was on a procedural question, whether to continue debate on the immigration bill. And so, the 64 votes in favor may well exaggerate the bill's true support in the Senate. Still, backers were happy to proclaim victory however temporary. Republican Mel Martinez of Florida is one of the measure's sponsors.

Senator MEL MARTINEZ (Republican, Florida): I was delighted about the vote. I think it's a very good vote. I think it's a good early indication of where this bill is going. Now we need to keep fighting hard and we'll need to see what happens with some amendments. The Graham-Kyle-Martinez amendment is very important. It needs to pass.

NAYLOR: That amendment would, among other things, change a major provision in the legislation and require all the 12 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. to return to their native countries to apply for a temporary Z visa. The original proposal called for the touchback provision to apply only to those who were seeking permanent U.S. residency.

Other amendments will also complicate chances for the bill's passage later this week. One, by Virginia Democrat Jim Webb, will allow only those undocumented workers in the country for four years or more to be given legal status.

Senator JIM WEBB (Democrat, Virginia): Narrow the group to people who will truly put down roots in our communities, who's got a four-year test, plus a set of objective criteria and, at the same time, remove the requirement that people will have to go back to their home country in order to file for a visa, which I think is totally impractical. So I think - I honestly believe that would save the bill. And if it's not, then I don't know that I can support the bill.

NAYLOR: It's those kinds of tradeoffs that will determine whether the measure survives its next key challenge, a vote likely to come on Thursday on whether to end debate. Then, too, backers will need 60 votes. And even if that hurdle is cleared and the bill is approved by the Senate, it faces an uncertain reception in the House. There, minority Republicans are already proclaiming the measure stands no chance. Here's Republican Mark Souder of Indiana.

Representative MARK SOUDER (Republican, Indiana): Why is the underlying bill have amnesty in it when we're looking at least at five to seven years to be able to begin to implement an enforcement procedure? That's why the fundamental bill has no credibility. And, basically, what we're saying today is it's dead on arrival in the House.

NAYLOR: But that's a fight for another day. For now, backers of the immigration bill are focused on fending off what they consider killer amendments to the measure and hopes the 64 Senate votes won today are still there later this week.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, the Capitol.

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