WASHINGTON—President Bush and his administration are unleashing a final push behind a broad-ranging immigration bill as senators head back to Washington from a weeklong break, loaded with plenty of advice from their constituents.
Supporters of the 627-page bill are guardedly optimistic. But they concede that the battle is far from over as they prepare to confront more potentially destructive amendments that could dismantle the measure.
The Senate is scheduled to resume debate Monday, with Democratic leaders hoping for a final vote by the end of the week. A bipartisan group of senators managed to beat back most attempts to seriously reshape the bill during the opening week of debate before lawmakers left town last weekend.
Tensions over the issue flared throughout the recess as some Republican senators aligned with the bill confronted boos, protests and angry phone calls from conservative supporters who oppose legalizing up to 12 million undocumented immigrants.
Bush and top administration officials have mustered a vigorous counterattack, at times harshly criticizing conservative Republican lawmakers who denounce the bill as amnesty for illegal behavior. The Republican president staged another impassioned defense of the bill Friday, urging Congress to "show courage and resolve and pass a comprehensive immigration reform."
The legislation, which about a dozen senators crafted during negotiations with administration officials, would allow illegal immigrants to stay in the country and work legally by paying fines, learning English, passing criminal background checks and holding steady jobs.
It also would create a guest-worker program, toughen border enforcement and mandate an electronic-verification system that employers would be required to use to make sure they weren't hiring illegal immigrants.
The biggest amendment thus far caps the guest worker program at 200,000 annually, compared with a maximum of 600,000 under the original bill. It also eliminates an adjuster clause that supporters say is essential to enable the government to raise and lower the cap to meet labor needs.
Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez expressed concern Friday that 200,000 workers annually aren't enough, and indicated that the administration may fight to raise the cap and restore the escalator clause.
U.S. businesses say the guest-worker program is essential to provide a steady source of foreign labor to fill low-skilled and unskilled jobs that American workers often bypass.
Pro-immigration groups also have embraced guest-worker programs because they offer a legal pathway into jobs now held by illegal workers. But they're displeased with the plan in the Senate because workers wouldn't be able to stay in the country and apply for U.S. citizenship.
Labor-backed attempts to kill or further weaken the guest-worker program were defeated during the opening week, but other assaults on the provision may surface next week. Hispanic and humanitarian groups may rally behind amendments that would grant participants a shot at permanent U.S. residency and citizenship.
Guest workers would receive two-year visas, then would be required to return home. They could renew the visas twice, but they'd have to stay in their home countries one year between each renewal. They'd have to leave permanently after six years.
One controversial amendment awaiting a vote comes from Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who wants to deny legalization to illegal immigrants who've ignored deportation orders or returned to the United States after they were deported. Supporters say the amendment could have a sweeping effect by discouraging thousands of illegal immigrants from stepping forward, thus undercutting a core intention of the bill.
Other potential targets for amendments are provisions that would base immigration partially on a point-based merit system and reduce family reunification, which now is one of the cornerstones of U.S. policy. New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and other Democrats plan amendments to soften the bill's impact on family reunification.
Bush has called for overhauling immigration law since early in his presidency. But his involvement in the latest debate eclipses his past efforts. With less than two years left before he leaves office, the president has campaigned on the bill's behalf while dispatching top administration emissaries to work with allies in both parties to propel it through Congress.
"I feel passionate about the issue," Bush told a diverse group of the bill's supporters at an Old Executive Office Building briefing Friday. "I believe it's in our interest when we find a system that is broken to fix it, and the immigration system is broken."
Unlike the previous session of Congress, when Bush gave lawmakers his broad concepts for immigration but left it to them to craft the legislation, the administration participated in shaping the compromise bill. Gutierrez and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff spent more than three months working with senators behind the scenes to produce the compromise.
The two Cabinet secretaries have staged group interviews with news organizations in an attempt to get the administration's message out. They'll monitor the debate closely next week, along with other administration officials, when Bush leaves for a week-long European trip.
Gutierrez, who joined Chertoff in a roundtable interview at the Commerce Department on Friday, said he'd participated in conference calls earlier in the week with more than 300 people across the political spectrum and that he thought support was tilting the administration's way. "People are realizing this is a compromise," he said.