With a deadline looming next week, senators locked in intense, secret negotiations over how to overhaul America's broken immigration system say they are closing in on a "grand bargain."
Those involved in the negotiations say the proposal would include border security and tougher sanctions against employers who hire illegal workers, along with a path to legal status – but not necessarily citizenship – for the millions now in the US illegally.
But this is a window that may close. If the deal – and the all-important wording of the legislation– is not settled in time for a key Senate vote on Tuesday, then lawmakers on both sides of the aisle say immigration reform may be off the agenda until after the 2008 elections.
Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) has set the deadline with the intent of squeezing out an agreement. Republicans, including key negotiators, say that the furious pace could force senators to vote for a plan before they understand its details.
"This is the best chance the country has to repair a broken immigration system," says Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina, who is urging Reid to give the bipartisan group time to complete its work. "If this moment passes, I don't know when we do it."
Meanwhile, conservative Republicans in both chambers are "drawing a line in the sand" over what they see as the most controversial element of the emerging deal: "amnesty," or special privileges, for those who entered the US illegally.
"We are here today to send a signal to the Senate leadership ... that if they do put forward their amnesty plan, then we will call it for what it is. And that is amnesty," said Rep. Lamar Smith (R) of Texas.
The negotiators keep working
In recent weeks, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez have been working with a dozen Republicans and, later, a half-dozen Democratic senators to hammer out a plan that could pass muster on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.
Senators say it would include funding for border fencing for major metropolitan areas, 6,000 additional border patrol agents, stronger sanctions against employers who hire undocumented workers, and a more secure worker-identification system.
In addition, they are considering new ways to prioritize immigrants seeking legal status, including a point system that favors a person's education and job skills over family ties. Such a system could break a cycle of chain migration that favors low-skilled workers.
In the last Congress, the House and Senate each passed immigration-reform bills. The House version focused on border security and workplace enforcement. The Senate bill included a path to citizenship for most of the 12 million illegal immigrants living in the United States. Opposition to the Senate bill in the GOP-controlled House was so strong that the bill never even went to conference to resolve differences.
With Democrats now controlling both the House and Senate – and with President Bush still committed to a comprehensive bill – prospects for immigration-reform legislation seemed to brighten.
But many of the 23 Senate Republicans who voted for immigration reform in 2006 say they will not again support that bill if Reid brings it to the floor Tuesday, as he has promised.
"We all recognize that that bill is imperfect. But it is a place that we're going to start," Reid said Wednesday.
"Democrats are committed to immigration laws that strike the right balance between protecting our security, strengthening our economy, and enacting laws that uphold the humanity and dignity of those who come here seeking a better life," said Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts, a lead negotiator.
Not enough time to assess the plan?
Some Senate Republicans worry that the two weeks set aside for debating immigration reform won't be enough to evaluate a very complex bill.
"It's a prescription for disaster," says Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) of Alabama, who says he was involved in early negotiations. "It will all come down to a 700- to 800-page bill.... The House will ram it through and the president can sign it, but the American people will have no idea what's in it."
In the House, lawmakers are especially divided over proposals to legalize the status of undocumented workers. Many of the freshmen who gave Democrats their majority in the 110th Congress campaigned against amnesty and are reluctant to appear to support it now.
"In my own household, if I tell my kids to do something, I don't reward them when they do not, and that's what the Senate is proposing – that we reward people who have broken the law [by allowing them to become citizens]," says Rep. Heath Shuler (D) of North Carolina, who joined Republicans in a May 8 briefing on immigration. "This is how people feel in my district," he said.
House Republicans working with Democrats to find a compromise on immigration, including a path to legal status for those here illegally, say the political future of their party is on the line with this vote.
"This issue is killing Republicans," says Rep. Jeff Flake (R) of Arizona. "We saw it in the last election. For Republicans to have this perception that we are anti-immigrant is devastating. Once you offend people, you lose them for a long time."
On Thursday afternoon, after briefing Senate Republicans on the outline of negotations to date, Sen. Jon Kyl (R) of Arizona said, "The response of our colleagues was very positive to reaching a solution with the Democrats."