U.S. Senate talks on immigration bill threatened
By Donna Smith
WASHINGTON, May 8 (Reuters) - A bipartisan push to overhaul U.S. immigration laws is in danger of falling apart if Democratic leaders force a debate in the U.S. Senate before lawmakers reach agreement, Republicans said on Tuesday.
Republican and Democratic senators have been negotiating for weeks on a broad bill that would clamp down on illegal immigration and create a guest worker program while providing a way for illegal immigrants to eventually become citizens.
Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, said lawmakers had an outline of a bill. But he said more time was needed to reach final agreement and he threatened to block efforts to start debate next week.
"We are not yet ready to proceed next Monday," Specter said.
Democrats worry that delay could doom chances of enacting legislation this year as lawmakers gear up for next year's presidential election and plan to press forward with debate.
"They've had ample time to come up with some type of an alternative," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said.
Reid plans to start the debate on Monday with a version of the comprehensive bill passed by the Senate last year over significant Republican opposition. That bill, which was supported by Specter, would have created a guest worker program backed by President George W. Bush and given millions of illegal immigrants a chance to earn citizenship.
'CLOSE FOR SEVERAL DAYS'
Sen. Jon Kyl, an Arizona Republican who opposed last year's bill, said a bipartisan agreement was crucial to winning passage of a new bill this year and moving too swiftly on the debate could "blow up" the talks.
"We would not want a process to go forward which would break up any chance for bipartisan agreement," Kyl told reporters. "We've been close for several days. There is not full bipartisan agreement on all of the major issues. Until we have that agreement we should not move forward."
The Senate-passed bill last year failed in faced stiff opposition in the House of Representatives from a group of Republicans who said it gave amnesty to people who broke U.S. laws.
A group of House Republicans renewed their opposition at a news conference on Tuesday to legislation that provides a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
"Just because someone is in the country illegally doesn't mean we have to give him citizenship, which is the greatest honor our country can bestow," said Rep. Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican. "Some even want to sell citizenship to lawbreakers to the price of a fine. I would oppose that as well."
The bipartisan legislation being negotiated in the Senate would allow some of the estimated 11 million to 12 million illegal immigrants to legalize their status, but they would face stiffer fines and more hurdles to get on the path to citizenship than last year's bill.
Specter said the group had agreed to more border controls and tough sanctions against employers hiring illegal workers.
"We are trying to structure a temporary worker program which is temporary, coming only for the purpose of filling needs and then returning to their native countries," Specter added.
Last year's Senate bill provided a way for temporary workers to eventually get permanent status and citizenship.