WASHINGTON — Just off the Senate floor, a dozen Democratic and Republican senators huddle twice a day to decide whether proposed changes to a bipartisan immigration compromise are acceptable tweaks or fatal blows to their fragile agreement.
Survival of the deal that would allow 12 million unlawful immigrants to stay in the U.S. legally - regarded as the best chance to overhaul immigration this year - depends in large part on how effective this "Gang of 12" is in insulating the plan from major changes.
The team grows or shrinks according to what the issues are. At its core are the unlikely partners who cut the deal, led by liberal Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and conservative Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz. Assistance comes from GOP centrist Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Mel Martinez of Florida and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.
They sit in overstuffed crimson leather chairs; Senate aides and senior White House officials look on. The team pores over lists of proposed amendments from both parties. Some are deemed acceptable, while others are deal-breakers that must be killed or modified to avoid alienating a key bloc.
"There is a real commitment to absolutely do our best to see that the agreement is not unraveled," Kyl said. "We're trying to avoid killing the deal."
Added Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo.: "We need to stay true to the principles" underlying the bipartisan deal.
It is a risky strategy on an issue as contentious as immigration. Lawmakers in both parties are eager to express themselves and bristle at accepting a measure developed by a small group of senators in private with the White House.
The measure would toughen border security and institute an employment verification system to bar undocumented workers from getting jobs. It would create a merit-based point system that would evaluate future immigrants and prioritize employment criteria over family ties.
The bill unites conservatives and liberals who regard enactment of an immigration measure this year as an imperative that can deliver political benefits and long-standing policy objectives to their respective parties.
Many lawmakers are suspicious of the group.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., derisively refers to them as "the masters of the universe."
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Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., is seeking far-reaching changes to the immigration measure and wants to remove the legalization program for unlawful immigrants.
"A lot of us don't feel like they're speaking for us, that this idea that we can't offer an amendment or it's going to blow up the deal is a bunch of nonsense," DeMint said.
"This is something that every member of the Senate should be participating in - not a small group," DeMint said. "There's never been a more emotional issue for people back home. They feel betrayed and violated. They don't trust our Congress."
The approach, however, may be the only way to ensure the bill makes it through the Senate and has a chance of being signed by President Bush.
Meting out change
It is not uncommon for informal bipartisan groups to band together to navigate complicated and controversial measures through the Senate. It takes only one senator to block action and most major bills essentially require the assent of 60 members.
A group comprising Democratic and Republican centrists came up with the Medicare prescription drug bill in 2003 and hung together to keep it intact during a heated debate. A similar team - branded the "Gang of 14" - worked out a deal in 2005 to avert a filibuster showdown over Bush's judicial nominations.
Still, the immigration group is unusual for the diversity of its members, who represent two dramatically different views on immigration.
They united to oppose a liberal, organized labor-backed attempt by Democratic Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota to scrap the bill's guest worker program. It failed on Tuesday.
Not considered a deal-breaker was a proposal by Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., to slash the guest worker program from up to 600,000 visas annually to just 200,000. It passed the Senate overwhelmingly Wednesday.
Still, the group of lawmakers agreed to seek to make that cap adjustable as market conditions demanded.
They were negotiating with Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, in efforts to revise his proposal to deprive foreigners whose visas were revoked of court review before being deported.
"Once somebody's identified as wanting to make the bill better, we sit down and tell them how the amendment would affect the overall bill and see if we can accommodate them," Graham said.
The group is not all-powerful, though.
The lawmakers failed to fend off a proposal by Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., to toughen the border security and workplace enforcement triggers. They would have to be in place before the temporary worker program or the legalization of unlawful immigrants could go into effect.
It passed Wednesday without a recorded vote - a tacit acknowledgment by the group it lacked the support to stop it.
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