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Senate leaders strike a deal to revive immigration bill

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Times Staff Writer

Senate leaders reached a deal Thursday night to revive stalled immigration legislation after days of intense talks and a rare presidential salvage mission to the Capitol.

Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) issued a brief joint statement, saying they had met with key lawmakers and the bill would return to the Senate floor.

The Senate could resume debate next week, as soon as it finishes an energy bill, and would aim to complete it before the end of the month.

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The bill kicked up fierce objections among conservatives across the country who derided it as amnesty for illegal immigrants, emboldening Senate opponents who thwarted attempts to debate the bill.

Senate leaders agreed Thursday to a list of amendments to be considered, clearing the way for debate to resume. The decision followed President Bush’s announcement that he supports a move to immediately set aside more than $4 billion to beef up enforcement of immigration laws.

The two actions significantly improve the chances that the Senate will pass the comprehensive bill, which would provide a path to citizenship for many of the nation’s estimated 12 million illegal immigrants. “We believe that there are enough votes,” White House spokesman Tony Snow said Thursday.

A senior Democratic aide said that Senate leaders agreed to specific amendments, with 11 for each side, but did not describe them.

One will certainly be the amendment drafted by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) to guarantee that the federal government spends billions of dollars to improve border security and crack down on businesses that hire illegal workers. The measure is intended as an answer to conservatives who doubt the administration’s commitment to enforcement.

The president made his announcement two days after he urged Senate Republicans at their weekly policy lunch to pass the bill, his first such visit to the Capitol in nearly six years.

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“I understand Americans are skeptical about immigration reform,” Bush said in a speech to a construction trade association, recalling the last time large-scale immigration legislation was passed in 1986. “There’s a lot of people saying, ‘Well, there’s just no possible way that they can achieve important objectives. After all, they tried in ’86 and they failed.’ ”

The president insisted his administration was already doing a better job of catching illegal border-crossers, but said he would support the Graham amendment as a way to ensure that there was adequate funding to improve even more. “We’re going to show the American people that the promises in this bill will be kept,” Bush said.

Under the proposal, the U.S. Treasury would immediately set aside $4.4 billion to step up border security and workplace enforcement. The funds would be repaid from the fines collected over two years from illegal immigrants who go through the legalization process.

“The moment the presidential signing pen meets the paper these funds will be available,” Graham said in a statement.

“The funds will be ready to use in our efforts to construct miles of new fencing, miles of new vehicle barriers, utilize new cutting-edge technology at the border, build surveillance towers, institute an [employer verification system] to ensure workers are legal, and other enforcement measures.”

The president’s announcement appeared to sideline a move to put together a separate funding measure for the same purpose. Conservative opponents of the bill had asked for an emergency budget bill -- similar to those used to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- to show the administration’s resolve.

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Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a key opponent of the legislation, described Bush’s support as a “welcome development,” noting that he had proposed a similar plan as part of a defense spending bill last year.

“I do think it’s the right position, but it may be too late to revive this bill,” Cornyn said in a conference call with reporters. “Whether this is enough to satisfy members of the Senate, we’ll have to see.”

Snow suggested that the president and other backers of the bill wanted the funding to be a part of the immigration package, not a separate measure.

“All the pieces have to work together,” he said. “If you disaggregate, things fall apart.”

Reid pulled the bill from the floor last week in a dispute with Republicans over how many amendments he would permit to be debated and voted on. Opponents had offered more than 300 amendments, a common tactic designed to indefinitely prolong debate on a bill.

A bipartisan group of a dozen senators met for months with two Cabinet secretaries to craft the complex bill, defying deep opposition from within their own parties. Those same senators had met almost daily since the bill’s collapse to rescue it, saying the immigration crisis is too dire to abandon the bill.

Most observers believe the approach of the 2008 election means it could be years before the right climate exists again to tackle the emotional issue.

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Calling immigration “one of the most pressing national security issues facing our nation,” Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) said Thursday in a statement: “Failure is not an option. And those who are using this opportunity to divide us instead of bringing real solutions to the table will be to blame if comprehensive immigration reform is not accomplished.”

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), one of the main opponents, dismissed the move to set aside billions of dollars for enforcement, saying: “It will do little to change the fundamental flaws of this legislation.”

“I can’t fathom why they seem so obsessed to ram through this flawed bill that the American people overwhelming reject,” he said in a statement.

The administration has insisted that an immigration overhaul be comprehensive and include programs that would address the country’s immigration problems.

Those elements include enhanced enforcement, a system to verify that employees are legal, a guest worker program, provisional legalization for illegal workers already in the country and a path to citizenship for those immigrants who wish to pursue it.

It would also restructure future immigration criteria to give more weight to language and job skills and less weight to family ties.

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Illegal immigrants who want to become citizens would have to pay back taxes, learn English and meet other requirements. The process would be expected to take eight years or more.

The legislation would require improvements in border security and work-site enforcement to be in place before the legalization process could begin.

“By moving forward with this bill in the Senate, we will make our border more secure,” Bush said. “In other words, if you’re worried about border security, you ought to be supporting this bill.”

maura.reynolds@latimes.com

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