In a last-ditch attempt to avoid a bipartisan stalemate on immigration reform, senators plan to negotiate through the weekend to try to forge a long-elusive compromise.
The negotiators are working against a Wednesday deadline set by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) for a vote that will determine whether the Senate will begin debate on immigration.
With House leaders insisting that senators take the lead, the Senate’s failure to move forward next week could derail hopes of overhauling immigration laws this year.
The weekend talks come after two months of intense negotiations involving a bipartisan group of senators and two Cabinet secretaries that still have not yielded a compromise.
To push both sides toward agreement, Reid has taken steps to make a reform bill written by last year’s GOP-controlled immigration committee the basis for this year’s debate. But Republicans now argue that the bill is not strict enough and have threatened to block debate.
The Republicans say a bipartisan agreement is within reach and pushed Reid, who had originally set the vote over whether to start debate for Tuesday, to give them more time. Immigration reform remains a high priority for President Bush, who has made it one of just a few major domestic issues he has pledged to finish before the end of his term.
On Friday, Reid stressed the need to act. Congress has other legislative priorities, including crucial spending bills, that must be passed by October.
“I want this Congress to accomplish immigration reform, and we are running out of time to do it,” Reid said. “The House of Representatives is waiting for us.”
He said he hoped Republicans would not prevent the debate from starting Wednesday.
“I hope they will reconsider this threat,” he said. “Members who have put so much time and effort working on an immigration bill should embrace our motion to start debate.”
Reid granted the negotiators an extra day after a request from Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), the lead Democrat on the issue. Republicans said they appreciated the gesture. “An extra day should be helpful,” said Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), the lead Republican negotiator.
Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) said Thursday that a potential agreement “is within our grasp.”
There is a strong consensus on continuing to improve border security. Both sides agree on creating a foolproof system to verify that employees are legal. They back tough punishment for companies that hire outside the legal system.
And both sides have accepted that certain goals to tighten the nation’s borders and immigration practices, which they call triggers, must be met before further reform can proceed.
Both sides have also agreed that the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. should be given a way to earn citizenship.
Though the criteria have yet to be fully ironed out, illegal immigrants who qualified for citizenship would probably have to learn English, pay fines, and show they have established roots in the United States and have held a job.
They would probably be required to leave the country briefly and re-enter legally and could be required to pay back taxes as well. They would not be processed before immigrants entering the U.S. legally.
But beyond that, Democrats say the two sides are far apart.
“The suggestion that we have broad agreement is to my mind not accurate,” said Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who blamed a Republican shift. “In essence, their plan moved to the far right.... It’s going to make negotiation much more difficult.”
There is significant disagreement over a temporary worker program. Democrats would like participants to be able to gain permanent resident status, a step toward citizenship, but Republicans would prefer a program that is purely temporary.
Republicans would also like to reconfigure the basic underpinnings of U.S. immigration, shifting it from a system that seeks to reunite families to one that gives preference to immigrants with education and skills sought by American businesses. That move is bitterly opposed by Democrats, as well as immigrant and religious groups.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said Republicans had to take a tougher stance. Last year, GOP senators anticipated the Republican-controlled House would pass a bill tougher than theirs. This year, they expect the House bill to be similar to the Senate version.
“What we do in the Senate, I think, will be the bill,” Graham said.
“This time around we have to get a bill that we all can live with.”