WASHINGTON—The Senate is heading toward a volatile replay on immigration, with as much as two weeks of debate expected to begin May 14. Will the Democratic-controlled Congress be any more successful in resolving an issue that bedeviled the previous Republican-led session?
Here's an overview of what lies ahead as lawmakers begin "Immigration: The Sequel."
Q. What are the basics?
A. Key senators have been struggling for days—thus far with little sign of a breakthrough—to cobble together a compromise bill to send straight to the Senate floor. If they fail to reach agreement by the end of the week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., still plans to start debate on May 14 and will use a placeholder bill to get things started.
Q. What's the placeholder?
A. Probably some form of immigration legislation considered by the Senate last year—most likely a bill passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee. If senators reach a compromise in their behind-the-scenes deliberations after debate starts, that would most likely be substituted as the platform for debate, but it would be subject to amendments from all sides.
Q. What's the outlook?
A. Uncertain at best. Supporters of a proposed immigration overhaul—most notably President Bush—were initially optimistic that their chances appeared brighter this year after Democrats took control of Congress in January. But the arduous behind-the-scenes negotiations in the Senate show that building a winning bipartisan coalition will be just as difficult as ever.
Q. What's at stake for Bush?
A. This is his signature domestic issue, and the White House is pushing hard to give the beleaguered wartime president a major triumph before he leaves office in January 2009.
Q. Where are the land mines in the current debate?
A. Everywhere. But the biggest is the one that stymied the last Congress—how to deal with the more than 12 million undocumented immigrants now in the country. There seems to be a broad consensus that mass deportation is both unworkable and inhumane. Many lawmakers in both parties feel that most undocumented residents—particularly those who have been in the country a long time—should be given a chance at some form of legalization. But many Republicans believe they should be required to go back to their country first.
Q. What are the other hot issues?
A. The structure of a proposed guest-worker program that would enable U.S. employers to bring in thousands of foreign workers each year to fill what they say is a chronic shortage of unskilled workers. Senate negotiators have been deadlocked on Democrats' insistence that guest workers be put on track for U.S. citizenship and Republicans' insistence that workers go home after their temporary work visas expire.
Q. Where does the White House stand?
A. Bush has repeatedly called for an overhaul that includes a guest-worker program, toughened enforcement on employers, and conditional legalization for undocumented workers who pay fines, learn English and maintain steady employment. But administration officials, in meetings with lawmakers, have made PowerPoint demonstrations that suggest a tougher White House line this year—including charging undocumented immigrants up to $20,000 in fines and fees to become legal permanent residents, far above the level proposed in earlier bipartisan bills.
The presentations also injected relatively new elements into the debate by recommending a point-based immigration system that would favor higher-educated professionals or specialists. It would sharply curtail the immigration of family members, who now constitute the biggest bloc of legal immigrants.
Administration officials says the PowerPoint demonstrations are "official use only" to generate discussions. But pro-immigration groups believe the proposals constitute a shift to attract conservative Republicans. Conversely, Democrats say those proposals are automatic deal killers.
Q. What's next?
A. The Senate needs 60 votes to beat back a potential Republican filibuster. The objective is maintaining the fragile coalition that passed last year's bill 62-36, with solid support among Democrats and a split among Republicans. Headcounters say at least 20 Republicans votes are needed for passage this year.
Q. What's the outlook in the House?
A. A bipartisan bill co-sponsored by Reps. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., and Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., has attracted considerable attention, but the House strategy is to let the Senate go first. If the Senate fails, say experts, the immigration debate may be over.