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Senate to Vote on Immigration Overhaul

Associated Press | May 25, 2006
By SUZANNE GAMBOA

WASHINGTON (AP) - Senators are betting the U.S. would benefit from giving most illegal immigrants the chance to become American citizens - highlighting their resolve to pass a landmark immigration overhaul.

With approval expected by mid-Thursday, the Senate first had to work through several amendments that did not threaten the overall measure.

"I will be voting for it," Majority Leader Bill Frist said after senators finished work late Wednesday. Frist, R-Tenn., said the Senate would have a strong bill to take to negotiations with the House.

Opponents made a last-ditch attempt on Wednesday to derail the bill, contending it violated spending limits. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said the bill would bust the budget. Supporters countered that immigrants will be working and contributing more than they will cost.

"The economy is as good as it's ever going to get in your lifetime," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. The estimated 12 million immigrants in the country have assimilated into the economy "and it's humming," he said. The effort was defeated 67-31.

As they finished up the details, senators had an eye on the difficult task of reconciling their bill with the House's version, which deals only with enforcement.

"If there are some unneeded and unwanted complexities in this legislation, they could probably be smoothed out," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., one of the main architects of the bill.

Appearing Thursday on CBS's "The Early Show," McCain said he did not consider any provisions immune from discussion in coming talks with the House.

"I don't think it would be appropriate for us on the Senate side to draw a line in the sand and say this is nonnegotiable," he said. "That is not the way to go in."

But McCain also said he feels voters would strike back at both parties if no immigration legislation is passed this year. "The consequences of failure should properly be very high," he said.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said he probably would vote against the bill, but that its "problems" can be settled in negotiations with the House.

"Failure is really not an option," said Cornyn, who will be one of the negotiators. "I think we've got to come up with a bill that addresses the American people's concerns."

Frist said he was confident the compromise that emerges from House and Senate talks will be followed by the necessary money. He said the failure of the 1986 amnesty law actually would help today because it would reinforce the need for adequate financing, particularly for enforcement.

As the bill moved ahead, Mexico's president Vicente Fox spoke to legislators in Utah and farm workers, farm owners and business people in Washington state. Fox's message was that the U.S. and Mexico must fix immigration problems together.

In the Senate, a 73-25 vote to limit debate set the stage for final approval of the bipartisan bill. The measure calls for increased border security, a new guest worker program and a shot at citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants.

By contrast, legislation passed last year by the Republican-controlled House is generally limited to border security. It would expose all of the estimated 11 million to 12 million illegal immigrants in the country to felony charges; it has no guest worker program.

Presidential aide Karl Rove hoped to make inroads with House members who consider the Senate legalization provision "amnesty." Asked as he departed the Capitol whether he had made progress, he replied, "Could be."

If the Senate or the president insist on "an amnesty-type path to citizenship, it's a nonstarter," said former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, who is leaving Congress June 9.

But Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, who heads a group of 100 conservatives in the House, on Tuesday offered his own immigration bill that combines a guest worker program with the House enforcement measure.

GOP Rep. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, the House Judiciary Committee chairman, has insisted that Bush's view and the Senate proposal amount to amnesty. But he left the door open to make a deal.

"I don't think anything is a deal-breaker," Sensenbrenner, who will lead House negotiators, said in a CBS appearance. "We can't have legal proceedings to deport 11 to 12 million people, that is evident."

Also Wednesday, the Senate voted 56-42 to set aside two-thirds of 50,000 visas granted annually by lottery, largely to immigrants in African countries, for people with advanced degrees.

Senators also tacked on additional fees for illegal immigrants for the legalization program, raising total fees and fines to more than $3,200.

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