WASHINGTON - Over the last three weeks, Sen. Jeff Sessions tried everything he could to blow up a comprehensive immigration bill.
The Alabama Republican offered 17 amendments, championed the concerns of border enforcement unions, and decried the cost to taxpayers. Ahead of a Senate Judiciary Committee vote, Sessions produced a letter denouncing the proposal signed by opinion makers such as Laura Ingraham and Michelle Malkin.
Then he was on the losing end of a 13-5 rout.
For hard-line foes of immigration reform, the lopsided outcome produced a moment of clarity about the challenges they face in repeating their 2007 feat in scuttling comprehensive border legislation. Unlike six years ago, the loudest voices of dissent were drowned out by a disciplined performance from a bipartisan group of eight senators who teamed up to fight off the most serious threats to the bill.
"They announced flat-out at the beginning of the process that they would rally around and defeat any amendment that would alter their agreement," Sessions lamented of the group of four Democrats and four Republicans, known as the "Gang of Eight."
"The core has held and the bill is coming forward to the floor of the Senate with not a lot of changes," Sessions said.
The committee vote was only the first skirmish in a long battle ahead for a bill that represents the most sweeping overhaul of immigration law in nearly three decades, buoyed in part by Republican worries over a lack of Latino support for the party. The legislation moves to the full Senate floor next month - where passage is likely but not guaranteed - and the Republican-controlled House is negotiating its own plan that is expected to be more conservative.
Some immigration hard-liners, while still confident they will prevail in the end, acknowledge that proponents are better prepared for the assault from the conservative right that helped stymie the effort six years ago.
"It's a testament to other side's greater preparation over the past couple of years," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which opposes increased immigration. "They lined up people in coalitions more effectively. This time they were more prepared. That's why in general . . . they've done better."
Senate immigration supporters believe they emerged from the judiciary panel's hearings in a strong position, adopting key amendments to help mitigate criticisms from the other side. In 2007, when a bipartisan group of senators offered a bill, Senate leaders avoided the committee process and took the legislation directly to the floor, where opponents quickly fractured the coalition with "poison pill" amendments.
Heading into the hearings, Republican critics sought to employ sustained pressure on the bipartisan group that had written the legislation over months of private negotiations. GOP members produced two-thirds of the 301 amendments filed in the committee, focused largely on border security.
The goal, in many cases, was not necessarily to alter the legislation but rather to force the four Gang of Eight members on the committee - Democrats Charles E. Schumer, N.Y., and Richard J. Durbin, Ill., and Republicans Lindsey Graham, S.C., and Jeff Flake, Ariz. - into difficult votes on issues where Democrats and Republicans are ideologically opposed.
But all eight members of the group met in private before each committee hearing, hashing out which amendments they would support and oppose as a united coalition. Senate aides said amendments were rejected if either side felt they would shatter the deal.
GOP members of the group opposed several tough border-control amendments from Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas), and Democrats persuaded committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.) to withdraw a proposal that would have granted protections to same-sex couples under immigration laws.
Where possible, the group agreed to accept amendments from Republicans to show that they were serious about working collaboratively and to take the sting out of accusations that the bill was too liberal.
On the first day, the committee adopted an amendment from Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R., Iowa), a leading critic of the bill, that would require federal agencies to apprehend 90 percent of immigrants trying to enter illegally from Mexico along the entire Southwest border, rather than only in "high-risk sectors."
Behind the scenes, the Gang of Eight had agreed to support the amendment, even though Democrats feared it would risk delaying the path to citizenship for 11 million immigrants who were in the country illegally.