ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
The Senate has begun debating a complex and controversial immigration bill. It passed a test vote this evening by a margin of 69 to 23 that allows senators to formally begin consideration of the measure. The bill would tighten border security, give legal status to an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants, start a new guest worker system and change a number of laws on how visas are awarded. Critics say the measure gives amnesty to illegal immigrants - and is unworkable.
NPR's Brian Naylor reports.
BRIAN NAYLOR: When supporters of the immigration proposal announced they'd reached agreement on the measure last week, there was optimism the bill might sail unimpeded through the Senate. But as critics have had time to examine the fine print, the measure now faces some choppy waters.
As was expected, the rallying point for conservative Republicans has been the provision that would give immediate legal status to the 12 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. and put them on a pathway to citizenship.
Kentucky Republican Jim Bunning says the word for that is amnesty.
Senator JIM BUNNING (Republican, Kentucky): In our recent history, we have seen an alarming increase in immigration from people who don't think they have to wait in line, or play by our rules. Instead of punishing these people, a few senators and the administration have crafted a large-scale get-out-of-jail-free pass.
NAYLOR: Republicans also objected to the speedy schedule set for the measure. Senate Democratic leaders had originally hoped to complete work on the immigration bill by week's end. Louisiana Republican David Vitter suspected ulterior motives.
Senator DAVID VITTER (Republican, Louisiana): Why are we in the midst of this rush to judgment, rush to pass this bill? I believe there's a very simple political answer, and it is that if the American people fully understood what was buried in this bill, there would be a massive outcry against it.
NAYLOR: Opponents cite a litany of problems with the bill. Not only do conservatives oppose the so-called amnesty provision. They don't believe that triggers such as step-upped employer verification of IDs and the hiring of 14,000 additional border agents will be met before the legalization process is allowed to occur. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, however, argued it's a matter of priorities.
Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada; Senate Majority Leader): We can continue to track down the undocumented housekeepers, dishwashers, farm laborers who live among us, or we can provide them the chance to earn their citizenship with all the responsibilities it requires, and refocus our limited resources on those who would do us harm rather than those who would do us proud.
NAYLOR: But Reid and other Democrats have problems with the bill as well. They take issue with the guest worker provision that would allow some 400,000 temporary workers into the country annually for two-year periods. Democrats worry that will create a labor pool of low-wage workers. Supporters of the bill, including Colorado Democrat Ken Salazar, argue it's time to act.
Senator KEN SALAZAR (Democrat, Colorado): In my view, the bipartisan legislation that has been put together is a tough law-and-order bill and a real bill, a realistic bill that provides realistic solutions. It's not a bill that is liked by the bomb throwers, who want to essentially not have any progress on immigration reform because they would rather the debate go on - not two years, not five years, but 10, 20 years.
NAYLOR: Democratic aides say senators are lining up with dozens of amendments to the immigration proposal. Many will be opposed by the bipartisan authors of the bill. And debate on the measure will stretch on into June.
Brian Naylor, NPR News, the Capitol.
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