Senate Republicans and Democrats closed in on a last-minute compromise Thursday on legislation opening the way to legal status and eventual citizenship for many of the 11 million immigrants living in the United States illegally.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said he had been assured President Bush supports the measure, and would publicly say so later in the day.
As outlined, the measure would provide for enhanced border security, regulate the future flow of immigrants into the United States and offer legalized status to the millions of men, women and children in the country unlawfully.
"We've had a huge breakthrough" overnight, said Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn.
Not done deal yet
Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader, agreed, but cautioned that the agreement had not yet been sealed.
Even so, the presence of both leaders at a celebratory news conference underlined the expectation that the Senate could pass the most sweeping immigration bill in two decades, and act before leaving on a long vacation at the end of the week.
The developments marked a turnaround from Wednesday, when it appeared negotiations had faltered. The key sticking point involved the 11 million illegal immigrants in the country, and the struggle to provide them an opportunity to gain legal status without exposing lawmakers to the political charge that they were advocating amnesty for lawbreakers.
While final details were not available, in general, the compromise would require illegal immigrants who have been in the United States between two years and five years to return to their home country briefly, then re-enter as temporary workers. They could then begin a process of seeking citizenship.
Illegal immigrants here longer than five years would not be required to return home; those in the country less than two years would be required to leave without assurances of returning, and take their place in line with others seeking entry papers.
Not everyone was satisfied.
“I’m not impressed,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, who has criticized earlier versions of the measure as too lenient on lawbreakers. Sens. John Cornyn of Texas and Jon Kyl of Arizona joined him in criticizing the measure, as did Georgia Republicans Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson.
Debate includes other issues
Beyond the illegal immigrants, there were other thorny issues to be clarified. Senate leaders had yet to publicly unveil draft legislation to make sure that only legal workers were hired in the future, for example.
Nor was it clear what type of assurances, if any, Democrats had received from the White House and Republicans about compromise talks with the Republican-controlled House later this year. The House has approved legislation limited to border security, and while GOP leaders have signaled support for a broader measure, Democrats have expressed concern in recent days that they will be pressured to make unacceptable additional concessions to achieve a final compromise.
The breakthrough occurred overnight, after Frist had unveiled a revised Republican proposal that he credited to Sens. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Mel Martinez of Florida. Officials said McCain and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., who have long been trying to show the way toward bipartisan agreement on the issue, spoke by phone several times to review potential changes.
“Our plan is tough and fair, and I’m encouraged that the President now supports it,” said Kennedy in a statement. “The American people have made their voices heard in their churches, in their schools and in the streets and the Senate has listened,” he added, referring to the large rallies in recent weeks by protesters calling for rights for immigrants.
The closed-door negotiations proceeded as the Senate went through the motions on a test vote on an earlier version of immigration legislation.
Democrats needed 60 votes to prevail, and as expected, they fell far short. The attempt gained only 39 votes, while 60 senators were opposed.
In an ironic juxtaposition, the vote unfolded at the same time Frist, Reid and more than a dozen other senators were celebrating the breakthrough.
'Better than no bill'
“While it admittedly is not perfect, the choice we have to make is whether it is better than no bill, and the choice is decisive,” said Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Earlier, Reid told reporters, “We’re looking like we may be able to dance this afternoon.”
That was a reference to remarks he made on the day he became party leader and said, “I always would rather dance than fight. But I know how to fight.”
The issue has generated huge public rallies, exposed divisions within both political parties and already left an imprint on the midterm election campaigns for control of Congress.
Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles provided evidence of the emotion it has generated from 3,000 miles away when he urged Catholics to pray for passage of legislation allowing illegal immigrants to gain citizenship. The debate marks “one of the most critical weeks in the history of our country,” he said.