Senate leaders reach agreement on proposed immigration bill

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WASHINGTON – In a major breakthrough, Democratic and Republican leaders in the Senate embraced a compromise immigration bill Thursday, fueling prospects for likely Senate passage of a plan that would put most illegal immigrants on track to permanent legal status.

Senate passage would put the bill on a collision course with a tough border-enforcement bill that the House of Representatives passed in December. It wouldn’t give illegal immigrants legal status.

Thursday’s compromise broke a Senate stalemate and revitalized President Bush’s call for a comprehensive overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws. Nevertheless, a group of Senate Republicans and House conservatives wasted little time in attacking it.

A House-Senate negotiating committee will craft the legislation’s final terms, but some lawmakers and outside groups who have a stake in the immigration debate said the differences might be insurmountable. Compromise on such an emotional and controversial issue may prove impossible for many lawmakers who face re-election in November.

“I do not believe a plan of this nature can pass the House,” said Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo.

, the leader of a conservative coalition that opposes legalizing undocumented aliens. “It’s miserable public policy.”

Senate supporters of the compromise said Bush backed basic elements of the plan and would try to push it through Congress.

In a statement after the agreement was announced, the president acknowledged that there are “still details to be worked out” but called on senators to work hard to pass the bill before Congress quits work Friday for a two-week Easter recess.

The agreement would retool a comprehensive immigration plan that the Senate Judiciary Committee passed, which would have put nearly all illegal immigrants who are now in the country – estimated as at least 12 million – on a path toward permanent legal status and eventual U.S. citizenship.

Under the compromise, a three-tiered system would offer legal status to what Senate leaders estimate as 7 million to 8 million illegal residents who’ve been in the United States for five years or longer. They’d be eligible for “green cards” authorizing them to become permanent legal residents after six years and could become citizens after 11 years.

Those who’ve been in the United States two years or less – estimated at 1 million to 2 million – would be required to return to their home countries.

Undocumented aliens in the third category – 3 million to 4 million people who’ve been in the United States two to five years – would be required to go to one of 20 ports of entry, where they could apply for temporary work visas for up to six years. They’d also be eligible to apply for green cards.

All aliens allowed to remain would be required to pass background checks, learn English and pay back taxes and possible fines. They’d be required to present documents such as employee statements and tax records to determine how long they’d been in the country.

More than a dozen key senators, including Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., embraced the agreement and predicted it would win Senate passage with a bipartisan majority.

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“We’re not there yet, but hopefully in the next 24 hours there will be occasion for real celebration,” Reid said.

Frist called the compromise a huge breakthrough that puts the Senate on track toward passing “a very important bill.”

Other key senators endorsing the measure were John McCain, R-Ariz., and Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., who co-sponsored a plan that the Judiciary Committee bill largely incorporated, and Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the chairman of the Judiciary Committee.

Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., who authored a rival immigration plan, joined Sens. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., and Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., in denouncing the legalization provisions as a form of “amnesty” that rewards illegal behavior. They vowed to present amendments in an attempt to alter the bill.

“We just don’t want this crammed down our throat,” Cornyn said.

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Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., predicted that the compromise would draw more than the 60 votes needed in the 100-member Senate to withstand a possible filibuster from Republican opponents.

Referring to the bipartisan “Gang of 14” that fashioned a compromise on judicial nominations, Lieberman said: “Today, I think we have a gang of about 65.”

Frist presented the broad outlines of the compromise late Monday night after a seven-day stalemate that left senators in both parties increasingly doubtful that Congress would be able to overhaul immigration this year. Architects of the compromise included Frist, McCain and Sens. Mel. Martinez, R-Fla., Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Chuck Hagel, R-Neb.



(Montgomery covers Washington for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.)



(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20060406 IMMIGRATION

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): IMMIGRATION

AP-NY-04-06-06 1859EDT

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