Immigration debate to resume

May 12, 2006|By NICOLE GAOUETTE | NICOLE GAOUETTE,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- Breaking a weeks-long partisan deadlock, Senate leaders announced an agreement yesterday to resume debate on legislation that would provide legal status to millions of undocumented immigrants, create a guest worker program and bolster border security.

The agreement gives new momentum to a bill that seemed on the verge of Senate approval before collapsing in early April amid partisan bickering. Senate leaders said debate would start Monday, with the Senate aiming to pass legislation by Memorial Day.

Still, prospects for the bill are uncertain because a large group of House Republicans opposes a guest worker plan and enhanced legal status for illegal immigrants.

In the Senate, agreement to revive the legislation rested on an unusual arrangement for naming members of the Senate committee who will negotiate with the House on a final version of the bill. Reaching that agreement "has been extremely, extremely difficult," said Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the Senate Democratic leader. He added later: "I am very happy with where we are. There will be a fair debate on the Senate floor."

"We both anticipate a lot of challenging times in what we know will be a very difficult bill," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat and one of the main authors of the legislation at the center of the immigration bill, called on President Bush to get involved. The president has backed a guest worker program and legal changes that allow undocumented immigrants to gain citizenship, as long as they are not processed before legal immigrants.

But the greatest critics of the president's vision have come from within his party. "It would make a good deal of difference if we could get the president involved," Kennedy said. "That's what we need more than anything else now."

The House passed immigration legislation in December that is starkly different from the Senate bill, focusing on border security but not addressing the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants in the United States or the guest worker program sought by businesses and the president.

The House bill also made illegal presence in the United States a felony, a provision that helped propel protests nationwide. Many House members say that giving legal status or citizenship to illegal immigrants would amount to amnesty for law-breakers. In a sign of the fireworks to come, Rep. Tom Tancredo, a Colorado Republican and leader of the 97-member House Immigration Caucus, condemned the Senate agreement and predicted conflict.

"By caving in to the Democrats this morning, Bill Frist pushed the Senate toward the biggest illegal alien amnesty in American history," Tancredo said in a statement. "Frist has put the Senate on a collision course with the House."

Nicole Gaouette writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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