Senate heads toward immigration showdown

WASHINGTON—The Senate moved toward an uncertain showdown on immigration Wednesday as Bush administration officials huddled with key senators in an attempt to broker a last-minute compromise.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the Senate would begin work with placeholder legislation left over from last year if compromise efforts fell apart. But restive Republicans strongly hinted that they'd attempt to block debate if Reid pressed ahead with that course.

The outcome was impossible to predict as Congress again tries to address President Bush's call for a comprehensive immigration overhaul. A bill passed the Senate in 2006 but died in a stalemate with the House of Representatives.

Here's what's at issue:

_ WHAT'S NEXT? The Senate's first step Wednesday will be a test vote to proceed with debate, requiring a so-called super majority of 60 votes. It could decide the fate of one of the president's top domestic initiatives.

Although diehards would attempt to resurrect it, a delay would throw it deeper into 2008 presidential politics, making it even harder to reach consensus. Consequently, many lawmakers say Wednesday's procedural vote may be make-or-break for the issue.

_ WHAT'S THE PLACEHOLDER LEGISLATION? The 2006 bill that passed the Senate, which Republicans then controlled, by 62-36. Reid put it on the table as the starting point for debate if efforts to forge a compromise bill collapse. Many Republicans who oppose last year's bill resent that strategy and see it as a back-door attempt to revive the measure.

_ WHAT'S THE STATE OF PLAY ON COMPROMISE TALKS? Senators negotiated for several hours late Tuesday afternoon, but didn't reach agreement in the latest round of bipartisan talks, which began more than two months ago. They plan more negotiations Wednesday before the start of the debate, according to Senate aides. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, representing the administration, was among those who were meeting in an anteroom off the Senate floor.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., remained hopeful that a compromise would be reached. "I remain optimistic that we'll put together a bill that clears the Senate on a bipartisan basis," he said.

_ WHAT ARE THE PROSPECTS FOR SUCCESS? By some accounts, the negotiators had at least 25 remaining issues, and some earlier agreements showed signs of unraveling. "Everything's linked to everything else," said Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican from the border state of Texas. "I don't think you'll see a resolution until all these things are resolved."

_ WHAT ARE THE MOST CONTENTIOUS ISSUES? Many of the hang-ups are in the details. There appears to be general agreement on legalizing more than 12 million illegal immigrants if they pay fines, learn English and return to their home countries for a brief time. But the size of the fines—at one point proposed at more than $10,000—has become a sticking point.

Another dispute centers on the White House push to admit immigrants on the basis of merit and their potential contributions to the U.S. economy while sharply reducing the number of relatives they could bring. Democrats, at one point, appeared to be moving toward a version of the White House plan, but they took a second look after immigrant organizations and other Democratic constituencies opposed reducing so-called family immigration.

_ WOULD REID BE RECEPTIVE TO DELAYING THE VOTE? Conceivably, if negotiators appear to be closing in on a compromise. Another option is to allow the Senate to get started and then quickly substitute a compromise bill. Many Republicans, however, oppose that approach and say they need perhaps weeks to review a bill that could be more than 600 pages long.

_ WHO ARE THE LEADING PARTICIPANTS? Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy on the Democratic side and Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl for the Republicans. Other key participants have included Sens. Ken Salazar, D-Colo.; Robert Menendez, D-N.J.; Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.; Cornyn; and Kay Bailey Hutchison, who's also a Republican from Bush's home state of Texas.