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No immigration bill? Senate debates anyway

Lawmakers expect a vote, agreement or not.

Published May 14, 2007


WASHINGTON - Supporters of immigration reform considered themselves among the biggest winners in November when Democrats took control of both the House and Senate.

But four months into the new Congress, lawmakers are no closer to passing the landmark legislation than they were last year when they tried - and failed - to agree on a bill that addresses illegal immigrants, guest worker programs and border security.

Senators are scheduled to begin debating the issue again as soon as today with an initial vote expected Wednesday. But they don't have a bill to consider because months of negotiations have yet to produce a compromise.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada threatened to move forward with last year's bill even though many senators insist they will not support it this year.

Even Florida Republican Sen. Mel Martinez, usually an optimist, sounded doubtful last week when he put the odds of a bill passing this year at less than 50 percent.

"Right now, it looks difficult, " he said.

The unity widely anticipated among Democrats and President Bush on immigration never happened. Instead, conflicts remain within parties, within chambers, even within the White House.

"The public has an enormous hunger for a bipartisan solution but finding the sweet spot is difficult, " said Frank Sharry, executive director for the National Immigration Forum. "We're headed for a moment of truth. It's either a breakdown or a breakthrough."

Last year, conservative Republicans who complained the proposals were too lenient on illegal immigrants derailed any chances for a bill to pass. This year, some moderate Democrats, particularly freshmen from working class or rural districts, also oppose citizenship for illegal immigrants.

Polls show Americans overwhelming support immigration reform that includes citizenship, and Bush has continued to make it one of his top domestic goals. But the complicated issue continues to divide lawmakers and the top two congressional leaders have failed to make it a priority.

Negotiators say they are close to a deal though sticking points remain on how to deal with the 12-million illegal immigrants in the United States and whether relatives of those already in the country should be given preference over others.

"It's not quite as simple as people think, " said Mark Krikorian, executive director for the Center for Immigration Studies.

Last year, the Senate passed a bill supporting a path to citizenship, guest worker programs and border security. The House rejected the proposal, demanding only enforcement.

This year, the new Congress started from square one.

"I'm still hopeful, " said Tamar Jacoby of the conservative Manhattan Institute, who supports reform. "I just feel there is so much momentum building up."

A bill similar to last year's Senate proposal has been introduced in the House. The White House floated a more conservative plan. But neither is considered the compromise that could garner enough votes in the House and Senate.

Both Reid of Nevada and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California say they will not push a bill through without Republican support. They are counting on the White House to help deliver 25 Republican votes in the Senate and 70 in the House - a tough task for an administration with sagging approval ratings.

Some Republican senators, including the most senior Republican on the Judiciary Committee, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, are asking for more time to hash out a plan. Others, including Martinez, want to make sure last year's bill - which Martinez helped author - is not considered again.

"A consensus bill is the best chance Congress has to pass immigration reform that can be signed into law, " Arizona Republican Sen. Jon Kyl said. "I am concerned by reports that Senate Democrats may attempt to pass last year's immigration legislation rather than continue working toward a bipartisan solution."

But Reid remains adamant that debate begin this week. If there is no bill by then, he could begin debating the House bill, a blank bill that could be filled in later or most likely last year's Senate bill.

It's unclear how Republicans will react. Democrats control the Senate, but they lack the 60 votes needed to move forward on an issue, which allows Republicans to prevent a vote.

Reid said senators should have been prepared since they have known for two months that immigration would be coming up in May.

"Anyone who thinks two months is not enough time to get ready should get another occupation, " he said.

The issue was expected to be brought up earlier this year, and postponing it past this summer will likely mean it's dead for at least two years.

Traditionally, the House and Senate must work on appropriations bills after returning from their monthlong August recess. Later, they would be unlikely to take up a volatile issue like immigration when the midterm and presidential races are heating up.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Anita Kumar can be reached at or 202 463-0576.

The proposals

- The Strive Act (Security Through Regularized Immigration and a Vibrant Economy Act), introduced in the House by Reps. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., and Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., includes a guest worker program and a path to citizenship after briefly leaving the country and returning through a port of entry. Opposition includes labor unions that worry about the increase in foreign workers and conservative Republicans who say illegal immigrants would be rewarded with citizenship for breaking the law.

- The Senate bill passed last year would allow illegal immigrants a path to citizenship, expand guest worker programs and authorize 370 miles of new triple-layered fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border. Opposition includes conservative Republicans and some Democrats, even some who supported it last year, who consider it too lenient.

- A preliminary White House plan leaked to the media includes a guest worker program, costing $3, 500 every three years, and a path to citizenship after returning to home countries, applying for re-entry and paying a $10, 000 fine. Opposition includes advocates of immigrant rights, some business groups and many Democrats who argue it will require immigrants to pay costly fees and wait years to become citizens.

What's next?

The U.S. Senate expects to begin debating immigration reform as soon as today with a preliminary vote expected Wednesday. Debate is scheduled for up to two weeks. The House plans to consider a proposal in July before Congress' monthlong August recess.


[Last modified May 14, 2007, 07:06:28]

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