A priority for many farm groups is the "Ag jobs" component, one of several programs now needing a new legislative vehicle. It would legalize about 1 million undocumented agricultural workers in the U.S., a key goal of growers whose crops can rot in the fields if not harvested at key times by people willing to work hard at low wages.
The program is considered relatively popular, as is another piece of the stalled bill: the DREAM Act, or Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act. It would create a path to legality for illegal immigrants planning to attend college or join the military and who came to the United States with their families before they turned 16.
Some lawmakers said they hope Congress will enact such programs as stand-alone bills fairly soon. Others, however, said it will be difficult to pass even non-controversial parts by themselves. Backers of items likely to be left out, they said, will resist losing the political leverage that a multifaceted package can provide.
In an interview earlier this week, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. — a backer of the sidetracked bill — said the one-at-a-time approach may prove impossible, even for tougher border-enforcement measures that now seem popular.
"The only way we're going to get Ag jobs or DREAM Act" or pathways to legal status for the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants, Graham said, "is to do it together. This idea of 'Just do the enforcement,' there are no votes for that."
Other Republicans, especially in the House, disagree. All immigration-related proposals should be postponed, they said, until the Mexican border is secured.
"The American people believe that until we're able to secure our borders and enforce our laws, taking additional steps is really not in the best interests of the country," House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said after Thursday's crucial Senate vote that derailed the bill.
Some lawmakers immediately urged President Bush to accept defeat on the wide-ranging bill and ask Congress for an emergency spending bill for more border enforcement activities. "That would be a great next step after this vote," said Sen. David Vitter, R-La., who opposed the bill.
Some lawmakers said it hardly matters, however, because enough money and authority already are in place to do the job.
There should be "a very strong sense of urgency in this country to simply carry out the law, the mandate, for 854 miles of fence that we passed" in the 109th Congress, Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., told reporters Thursday. "They've only built 13 miles of the fence so far. Let's get it built before the next hot season."
While the security debate simmers, the farm lobby will push for Ag jobs, immigrant advocacy groups will fight for the DREAM Act, and other interest groups will seek avenues for similar pet projects. Some legislative leaders Thursday were noncommittal on how they might fare.
House Minority Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo., was asked if his caucus would support Ag jobs by itself. Most Republicans would back a similar program, he said, but he added: "The concern that House Republicans have and have had for some time now is the order in which these things are accomplished. You have securing the border, being sure that workers who are here appropriately are here with ID that's verifiable, that's reasonably hard to duplicate."
Paul Schlegel, public policy director for the American Farm Bureau, said in an interview, "It's a little soon to handicap" the Ag jobs program's future. "The administration has said all along they want a comprehensive approach," he said, and the bureau has worked in concert with the White House thus far.
The immigration bill's collapse forces all key players to rethink their next moves. Individual components may gain support in the coming weeks, but it won't be easy, several lawmakers said.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said in an interview before Thursday's vote: "I think it's pretty hard, the way things are set up here, to get anything done on immigration that's not part of a package."