The sole Senate Republican working with Democrats on a bipartisan immigration bill said Tuesday that the issue will have to wait until 2012, undercutting the drive to pass a law this year and setting up a partisan floor showdown that all sides acknowledge won't produce a bill that can reach the president's desk.
Pointing to Arizona's new law cracking down on illegal immigrants, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who had been trying to write a bill with Democrats, said it's clear that Americans do not think the border with Mexico is secure and will not accept an immigration bill until that's fixed.
He said trying to pass a bill in the face of that opposition will doom immigration reform for years to come and that the best lawmakers can hope for right now is to pass a bill in two years, once the border is secured.
"I believe we can do it by 2012, if we're smart and we address the big elephant in the room, and that is that our borders are broken," Mr. Graham told Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano at a hearing on Capitol Hill.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, accused Mr. Graham of flip-flopping from his stance just a month ago, and vowed to push ahead with a floor debate anyway, though all sides have acknowledged that passing immigration will take bipartisan support and Mr. Graham had been the only Republican to step forward.
"Others may have given up on immigration reform. I haven't," Mr. Reid said.
The issue is among the most divisive facing Congress but does not easily break down along party lines. Lawmakers face fundamental competing pressures between upholding the rule of law and a desire to be welcoming to immigrants.
Immigrant rights groups already feel betrayed by President Obama, who they say promised to relax some enforcement practices and to push for an immigration bill in his first year in office. On Tuesday, 24 protesters were arrested for disorderly conduct in a Chicago suburb after they sat in a street to block a van carrying illegal immigrants from a federal detention center, the Associated Press reported.
"The community has had enough. We do not recognize the country we are becoming. We want action, and we want it now," said Deepak Bhargava, executive director of the Center for Community Change, which is helping organize a series of nationwide rallies for May 1.
He said blame extends to all parties — from Mr. Obama and Democrats, who control Congress and should be able to get legislation enacted, to Republicans, who he said are playing political games to try to protect their vulnerable members.
In the face of rising criticism, Mr. Obama has begun ratcheting up efforts for legislation this year, but Democrats need Mr. Graham and other Republicans to sign up if they are to overcome a certain filibuster in the Senate. Top House Democrats have said the House will act only after the Senate does.
"There's only 59 of us," Mr. Reid said.
Without a bipartisan bill, Mr. Reid's options are limited. He could bring up the 2006 bill that passed the Senate but never got a House vote, or the 2007 bill that didn't even earn majority support among senators, or he could try to craft his own legislation.
But bills that fail can sometimes poison the well for a particular issue for years in Congress, as was the case with President Clinton's health care efforts in the early 1990s or the failed 2007 immigration bill. Mr. Graham warned Tuesday that that will happen again if Mr. Reid presses ahead.
"I bet you everything I own, if you bring it up in this environment, not having done anything that is going to reassure the American public that we won't have 20 million more [illegal immigrants], that you're going to crash and burn, and that [if] immigration comes up this year, it is absolutely devastating to the future of this issue," he said.
Republicans said spillover violence from the battle between Mexican authorities and drug cartels threatens Americans, and they point to the deaths of three employees of a U.S. consulate and the killing last month of an Arizona rancher as evidence of the security threat on the border.
Ms. Napolitano, a former Arizona governor, called the rancher's slaying "outrageous" but said by every measure the border is more secure.
"The plain fact of the matter is … the numbers at the border have never been better," she said. "We need to keep working those efforts, sustaining those efforts, but at the same time, comprehensive immigration reform should be in our sights."
Still, under questioning by Mr. Graham, she stopped short of saying the border is fully secure.
Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl, Arizona Republicans, earlier this month called for Mr. Obama to deploy National Guard troops to the Arizona-Mexico border, and a bipartisan group of House lawmakers is making the same demand this week. Led by Rep. Ted Poe, Texas Republican, and Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, Arizona Democrat, the House members will ask that the troops be armed and be authorized to defend themselves.
Amid those calls, Arizona's new law cracking down on illegal immigrants continues to roil the debate across the country and in Mexico.
The Mexican government issued a travel advisory to citizens visiting Arizona and to those in the U.S., while Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said he is considering a court challenge to Arizona statute.
Ms. Napolitano said the law, which doesn't take effect for several months, could strain the resources of immigration authorities because the government is not prepared to detain, process and deport that many illegal immigrants.
Meanwhile, national Hispanic groups have called for a boycott of Arizona businesses until the law is repealed.
But the law has found favor among many Republicans. A former congressman who is running for governor in Georgia has promised a similar law in his state if he's elected.
Mr. Obama last week tried to broaden his Republican outreach, placing calls to five Republican senators and sounding them out on joining the effort to pass an immigration bill.
Those Republicans didn't reject the overture but said other issues have higher priority.
"We really should be focusing on jobs right now. We've been doing everything but," said Sen. Scott Brown, Massachusetts Republican.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer, the New York Democrat who had been writing a bill with Mr. Graham, said Tuesday that he is still talking with colleagues about the next step. But he declined to talk about his conversations with Mr. Graham.
"I'm going to keep those to myself," he said.
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