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Senate Immigration Compromise Falters

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep. This is likely the critical day for the United States Senate to approve a revision of the nation's immigration laws, and it's not clear yet whether lawmakers will be able to do that before leaving town for a two-week recess. Hopes rose yesterday when leading Republicans agreed on revising an immigration bill. Majority Leader Bill Frist insisted this compromise is not an amnesty.

Senator BILL FRIST (Republican, Tennessee): But we do have 12 million people here today. We've got to be practical. And what this approach has done is had us recognize and discuss the fact that these 12 million people is not a monolithic group. It is a group that can be addressed in different ways, depending on where one falls within that group.

INSKEEP: Some other Senate Republicans say that compromise still amounts to an amnesty for most of those now in the country illegally, and that's one of the issues being debated.

NPR's Congressional Correspondent David Welna has been covering this story. David, good morning.

DAVID WELNA reporting:

Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So what is this compromise amount to? What do they do?

WELNA: Well, it's really largely the same border enforcement and immigration law revision that the Senate Judiciary Committee passed last week, but which got stopped by a Republican-led filibuster yesterday. It too offers a path to citizenship to millions of people who are in the country illegally. But the big difference is that instead of making that automatic for everyone who's been here for more than two years, as the other bill did, it requires having been here a minimum of five years to be able to stay and pursue citizenship. And that's estimated to cover about eight million undocumented people currently in the country.

And the deal also increases the number of green cards or permanent resident visas issued annually from 290,000 to 450,000. At the same time, it reduces from 400,000 to 325,000 the number of guest worker permits that would be issued annually.

INSKEEP: So now, under this plan millions of immigrants would qualify for citizenship, millions of others would not. What happens to them?

WELNA: Well, the three million people or so who've been here between two and five years would be able to pursue citizenship. But first, they'd all have to either leave the country or travel to a border point of entry where they'd get a temporary work permit, and that would allow them to seek a green card, although it would likely take many years of waiting to get one. And, as with the other bill, the million or so people who come here illegally in the past two years would have to either leave the country or be deported. Now, it's not at all clear how all this would work. The bill, as it stands now, does not have any provisions for screening workplaces and much less for rounding up people believed to be here illegally.

INSKEEP: So that's the proposal before the Senate right now. Is it going to pass?

WELNA: Well, that's not at all certain. You have Democrats and Republicans agreeing on passing this compromise, but you don't have much agreement about whether critics of that compromise should be able to try to amend it. There are more than 200 amendments stacked up right now for consideration. And Democrats especially fear that these amendments could get the legislation of the provisions giving a path to citizenship. So they're blocking these amendments, and that's led to an impasse, and this is also keeping up a sharp split among Senate Republicans.

Conservatives say this compromise really amounts to another amnesty. Here's a clip from last night on the Senate floor of Alabama's Jeff Sessions.

Senator JEFF SESSIONS (Republican, Alabama): The president has said that he is against an automatic path for citizenship, and he's against amnesty, both of which are in this bill. President needs to read it. You know, when you go out and campaign, you tell people what you're going to do, you need to honor that commitment.

WELNA: Now, President Bush is urging the Senate to finish this immigration bill before leaving this weekend; but with the number of amendments stacked up against it and the discord right now in the Senate, I think that's going to be a long order.

INSKEEP: David, thanks very much.

WELNA: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR Congressional Correspondent David Welna. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.