WASHINGTON—A White House-backed immigration bill remains fundamentally intact after supporters beat back destructive amendments during the opening week of Senate debate. But will it stay that way when senators resume work on June 4 after a weeklong recess?
Here's what to expect as Congress grapples with one of President Bush's top domestic initiatives.
Q. Critics have pummeled the bill. Can anyone claim victory after the opening round of debate?
A. Bush and the bipartisan group of senators who crafted the compromise bill are guardedly optimistic after the first week. Their goal is to defeat any amendment that could kill the entire bill. So far they've been successful, but they acknowledge that the battle isn't over.
Q. Will the bill pass?
A. The White House and Senate sponsors appear to have the momentum and a shot at getting the bill passed. But opponents hope to regroup during the Memorial Day break. Some senators who lean toward supporting the bill may reconsider if they face opposition from their constituents.
Q. When would the Senate vote on final passage?
A. Late in the week of June 4.
Q. If the bill passes the Senate, what happens next?
A. The House of Representatives, also controlled by Democrats, would go to work on getting a bill passed before Congress leaves for a month-long recess in August. The issue would ultimately play out in a joint House-Senate conference committee that probably wouldn't start work until this fall.
Q. Will any immigration legislation pass Congress, and will it look anything like the Senate bill?
A. It's impossible to predict whether Congress will be able to deal with an issue as hot as immigration, particularly with the onset of the 2008 presidential election year. The debate in the Senate is only a first step, and the battle in the House will be just as acrimonious. House leaders have indicated that they'll craft their own bill, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has told Bush that she wants to be assured of 70 Republican votes before she brings a bill to the floor.
Q. Refresh my memory. What are the key provisions of the Senate bill?
A. It would enable most of the nation's 12 million illegal immigrants to stay in the country legally under renewable Z visas after paying fines and fees, learning English and passing criminal background checks.
Those who wished to could apply for legal permanent residency—green cards—but they would have to return to their home countries to apply and would have to get in line behind millions of current green card applicants, a wait of at least eight years. They also would have to pay additional fines and fees.
Other features: A temporary guest-worker program for unskilled foreign workers who would be given two-year visas that could be renewed twice. They'd be required to go home for a year between each renewal, and would have to leave for good after a total stay of six years. Their immediate families could accompany them for only one two-year stay.
At least a third of future immigrants would be admitted under a new merit system based on factors such as education, skill level and English proficiency. The bill also would pare down family-based immigration by eliminating future visas for certain extended family members such as adult children and siblings.
The bill also requires that tough border security and enforcement measures be in place before the guest worker and legalization programs go into effect.
Q. Have there been any significant changes to the bill since the Senate started debate?
A. The most significant was an amendment by Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., that cut the guest-worker program from a maximum of 600,000 to 200,000 annually, well below what businesses say is necessary to fill a chronic low-skilled labor shortage.
Perhaps more significantly, the bill's sponsors say, the amendment eliminated a clause that would have enabled the government to raise or lower the cap on workers to meet future economic needs. Sponsors plan to try to restore the clause after the recess.
Q. Why are sponsors now optimistic that the bill could pass?
A. By a 3-to-1 margin, the Senate defeated an amendment to kill the legalization program, an overwhelming affirmation of support for the bill's most controversial feature. Sponsors also defeated attempts to kill or further alter the guest-worker program.
Q. What's in store when the Senate returns?
A. One early battle looms over an amendment by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, that would deny legalization to illegal immigrants who have ignored deportation orders or returned to the United States after they were deported. The bill's sponsors say the amendment's retroactive application would prevent thousands of illegal immigrants from stepping forward, undercutting a core intention of the bill.
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, also a Texas Republican, wants to require illegal immigrants to return to their home countries before they can be eligible for Z visas. New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, and several other Democrats are pushing amendments to soften the bill's impact on family reunification.