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Immigrant Overhaul Plan Stalls in Senate

A `breakthrough' on a compromise is held up over details and concern about political fallout.

April 07, 2006|Maura Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — An immigration overhaul plan that only hours before seemed on its way to Senate passage stalled late Thursday, raising the prospect that no action would be taken at least until after the two-week Easter recess that begins today.

At a joint appearance Thursday morning, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and his Democratic counterpart, Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, all but declared victory for a compromise plan that would have granted a path to legal status and citizenship for most of the estimated 12 million immigrants now in the United States illegally.

"We've had a huge breakthrough," Frist said.

"We can't declare victory. But we've moved a long ways down the road," Reid said.

But snags soon surfaced among both Democrats and Republicans -- members of each party were apparently concerned about substantive details of the overhaul plan and potential political fallout from voting on an issue that had provoked strong feelings as well as mass protests across the country.

Looming over the process for some senators was the fact that thousands of Latino and other immigrants have poured into the streets to protest a more restrictive approach to immigration passed by the House in December. Additional rallies are scheduled. How those demonstrations would influence public opinion is not yet clear.

"The momentum can move either way," said Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranking Senate Democrat. "Who knows what else will face us when we return."

For most Democrats, who were prepared to support the compromise, the primary concern was that key provisions in the pending Senate bill might be changed or eliminated when House and Senate delegates met to reconcile differences between the two bills. The House version contains what many Democrats say are draconian measures. Members of the conference committee will have wide latitude to shape the measure that goes back to each chamber for a final vote.

Since Democrats are in the minority in both houses, the committee will be dominated by Republicans, making Democrats fearful of being presented with a bill they would find unacceptable but could not stop.

"The biggest concern on the part of the Democrats is how do we preserve this compromise all the way through the process?" said Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.). "There is a lot of experience here with good bills going into conference committee and transforming."

"I think we're a long way from getting any kind of compromise that can survive [the House]," said Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.).

On the Republican side, concern appeared to fall into two categories: senators who favored a more restrictive approach to the path to legal status and citizenship, and senators who might support some compromise but wanted to test the waters back in their home states before voting.

The Senate proposal, drafted by Sens. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), offers tiered paths to citizenship for illegal immigrants who entered the country before January 2004 as long as they meet a string of requirements, including learning English. It also includes measures to enhance border security and increase employer sanctions in an effort to stem the tide of illegal immigrants seeking work.

The Hagel-Martinez proposal would differentiate between more-recent arrivals and illegal immigrants who have been in the country for five years or longer. The more recent arrivals would be required to leave the United States as part of the process of legalizing their status; illegal immigrants in the country for five years or more could complete the process without recrossing the border.

Democratic leaders said they were seeking a guarantee from Frist that members of the Senate Judiciary Committee -- who passed a more permissive version of the bill last week -- would be the Senate negotiators with the House.

Congressional procedures require the House and Senate to agree on a joint version of every bill. Known as a "conference report," it must be approved by both chambers before it is sent to the president.

Some immigration advocates echoed the concern expressed by Democrats.

"In order for this new deal to be acceptable to those of us who advocate on behalf of immigrants, we need assurances that the integrity of the bipartisan breakthrough will hold throughout conference negotiations with the House," a coalition of groups said in a joint letter.

The groups included the National Council of La Raza, the Asian American Justice Center, the American Immigration Lawyers Assn., the National Immigration Forum, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and Unite Here International Union.

But many Democrats made the argument that the Republican bill was better than no bill.

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