Possibilities

May 14, 2007

Successful negotiations so often seem on the verge of collapse just before a deal is reached that prospects for immigration reform may actually be brightened by the current Senate stalemate.

Republican negotiators are chafing at Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's deadline of today for producing compromise legislation. Mr. Reid, a Nevada Democrat, has threatened to offer instead the measure passed last year by the Republican-led Senate, which some Republicans now regard as too liberal. And neither side has the 60 votes necessary to accomplish anything.

But overcoming such obstacles requires political will, and there just doesn't seem to be the national drumbeat necessary to convince senators they have more to lose by doing nothing than by voting for a proposal with some unpopular features.

Intervention by President Bush may be all that can break the stalemate - and even then, Mr. Bush would likely have to change tactics by standing up to conservative hard-liners instead of trying to placate them. For the president, who is seeking a major domestic achievement before he leaves office, that should be a gamble worth taking.

The framework of a deal began to emerge last week after months of quiet talks between such unlikely Senate partners as Republican Jon Kyl of Arizona and Edward M. Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat.

Talk of trying to eject the 12 million aliens who entered the country illegally was dropped, but in its place was a general agreement that all who sought citizenship would have to go back, at least briefly, to their country of origin. The package also includes an expanded temporary-worker program for low-skilled and high-skilled workers, and verification programs to make sure workers wind up where they are supposed to.

But as of late last week, negotiators were still at odds over penalties illegal immigrants would have to face before winning legal status; whether guest workers would be allowed to seek citizenship; and a proposal by the White House that immigration preference be granted on the basis of labor needs rather than family connections.

Mr. Bush has trended to the right this year in order to win the backing of conservatives. But that appears to have been a miscalculation with a Congress now dominated by Democrats.

Still, it's not too late - and a president in search of achievement can be mighty persuasive. Curbing the cost, cruelty and exploitation of illegal immigration would be an achievement indeed.

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