May 9, 2007, 10:21AM
Senate plan for immigration fix up in air
Democrats ready to move forward, but GOP says the talks need time
By MICHELLE MITTELSTADT
Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — Staring down a deadline to make a deal on immigration, Republican and Democratic senators skirmished Tuesday over how to reach their goal of a comprehensive fix of the issue.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., insisted Tuesday that the Senate will begin a two-week immigration policy debate next week even though the bipartisan team scrambling to achieve a deal with the White House has yet to do so — and appears increasingly unlikely to finish its work in the coming days.
"They've had ample time to come up with some type of an alternative," Reid said.
If no deal is struck, he said, he intends to bring up the immigration bill approved by senators last year. If an agreement is reached, it could be substituted for the old bill.
But Republicans criticized the Democrat's insistence on going forward, saying Reid should give the bipartisan negotiators more time to develop a bill palatable both to immigrants' allies and those who favor strong enforcement of laws against illegal immigration.
The Senate Judiciary Committee's top Republican threatened obstruction if Reid re-introduces the bill passed by the Senate last year.
"There may be a filibuster there," Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said Tuesday.
Talks to revive old bill
Other Republicans didn't go quite as far but made clear that if their only choice is to vote on last year's legislation, even its GOP authors will vote against it.
"There is no use going to a bill that will not carry the day," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. "The only thing that will solve immigration, fix the problem, would be a bipartisan new bill."
Last year's bill is a non-starter for many Republicans in part because it is viewed as more lenient than the proposals under discussion.
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, among the senators engaged in marathon, closed-door talks for two months with White House emissaries, urged Reid to back off his plan.
"The talks are not there yet," the Texas Republican said. "This is a very complicated subject, and if it takes a little more time to get something where we know what the consequences would be, I think we should take more time."
Said Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz.: "This is far too important to have what is, in effect, an artificial deadline kill the bill."
Graham said he was cautiously optimistic that a deal could be reached, but others engaged in the talks were more pessimistic. Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., assessed the chances as "less than 50-50."
The senators, reluctant to publicly discuss their negotiations, have reached tentative agreement on a plan to give the nation's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants a chance to eventually become citizens.
In a concession to Republicans, legalization wouldn't begin until the government meets goals such as the hiring of more Border Patrol agents and creation of a tamper-resistant identification document.
Illegal immigrants would have to wait up to 13 years to gain legal status under the compromise, which has yet to determine the size of the fines they would pay or whether they'd have to return to their home country to apply.
The negotiators also have reached agreement on creation of a temporary worker program, allocating 400,000 visas annually for foreigners to work in the United States.
Among the biggest sticking points: Whether to reduce the legal immigration system's decades-old focus on family reunification in favor of a GOP-backed model of bringing in immigrants with essential skills and education.
Such a move would be opposed by immigrant-rights groups, the Catholic Church and others who insist family reunification should remain central to U.S. immigration policy.
The House has largely been on the sidelines in the immigration debate, awaiting Senate action before taking up its own legislation.
Several conservative Republicans joined by one Democrat, Heath Shuler of North Carolina, cautioned the Senate Tuesday against approving what they termed "mass amnesty on an unprecedented scale."
Illegal immigrants should be deported, not placed on a path to eventual citizenship, said Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio.
"Some even want to sell citizenships to lawbreakers to the price of a fine. And I would oppose that," said Smith, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee.