WASHINGTON (AP) _ Proponents of a broad immigration measure narrowly beat back potentially fatal challenges Thursday, including an effort to phase out the temporary worker program.
The Senate rejected, 49-48, a proposal by Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., to end the temporary worker program after five years. Earlier, by the same margin, senators voted down a proposal by Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., to allow government authorities to question someone about his immigration status if they had probable cause to suspect the person was in the U.S. illegally.
The razor-thin votes illustrated the tenuous nature of the immigration measure, which would grant an estimated 12 million unlawful immigrants legal status while improving border security and workplace enforcement. But the defeats also showed the durability of the unlikely coalition that cut the deal and is fiercely lobbying rank-and-file senators to preserve it.
``We are still together, and we're moving forward,'' said Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo.
The Bush administration and key congressional Democrats and Republicans stepped up their efforts to sell the compromise Thursday as lawmakers braced for a public backlash at home.
``Many Americans are rightly skeptical about immigration reform,'' President Bush said in a Rose Garden news conference. ``This bill provides the best chance to reform our immigration system and help us make certain we know who's in our country and where they are.''
With Congress set to break for a weeklong Memorial Day recess, supporters and opponents of the compromise were scrambling to shape public perceptions of the immigration overhaul.
``Time is on our side because our product is better than those who want to do nothing,'' said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. ``Our product is better than empty rhetoric without a solution.''
Proponents were working to refute criticism that the measure is too lenient by playing up border security and worker verification measures that would force employers to check the identity of everyone they hire.
They highlighted the hurdles illegal immigrants would have to scale _ including fines, background checks and holding down a job _ to gain lawful status through a new ``Z visa.''
``This bill does not grant amnesty. Amnesty is forgiveness without a penalty,'' Bush said.
Critics argue the measure could invite new waves of illegal immigrants by rewarding those already here.
The Senate was to consider several challenges to the legalization plan for unlawful immigrants. One, by Sen. David Vitter, R-La., would scrap it altogether. Another, by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, would bar those classified as terrorists or gang members, among others, from taking advantage of it.
Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the minority leader, was working to add language to the bill requiring that people seeking to vote present government-issued photo identification.
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, said she would push when Congress returns from its break to make illegal immigrants leave the country before they could obtain a Z visa. The bill only requires heads of households seeking a green card for permanent legal residency to return home.
The Congressional Budget Office told senators Wednesday that the measure would reduce the deficit by $37 billion over 10 years, mostly due to the increase in payroll taxes expected from the anticipated jump in legal immigrant workers.
The budget office estimated that Congress would have to allocate about $40 billion over a decade to implement the bill, with the largest expenditures coming from new border security and worksite enforcement measures.
Meanwhile, interest groups which have mixed views of the measure were mobilizing to activate a public clamor across the nation for action on immigration.
The Coalition for Comprehensive Immigration Reform unveiled Internet and radio ads quoting Kennedy, an architect of the bill, as saying it was ``not perfect.''
``That's why it's urgent to elevate our voice to achieve the improvements our community needs,'' said the spot, which is to run in heavily Hispanic media markets.