WASHINGTON – Senate Republicans reached agreement Wednesday night on a compromise immigration measure that they think will garner enough bipartisan support to break through a parliamentary impasse that has stymied progress on a high-stakes border security bill for two weeks.
Under the agreement, the Senate would allow undocumented workers a path to lawful employment and citizenship if they could prove – through work stubs, utility bills or other documents – that they have been in the country for five years. To attain citizenship, those immigrants would have to pay a $2,000 penalty, back taxes, learn English, undergo a criminal background check and remain working for 11 years.
Those who have been here a shorter time would have to return to one of 16 designated ports of entry, such as El Paso, Texas, and apply for a new form of temporary work visa for low-skilled and unskilled workers. An additional provision still under consideration would disqualify illegal immigrants who have been in the country less than two years.
In a surprise move Wednesday night, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., went to the Senate floor with a parliamentary motion to send the compromise to the Senate Judiciary Committee for ratification, then scheduled a vote for Friday to cut off debate on that motion.
A final breakthrough was held back Wednesday by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who insisted that any substantive compromise wait until a showdown vote to cut off debate on a more lenient measure passed by the Judiciary Committee last week. Reid and other Democratic leaders hope to show they have 60 votes in support of that bill, written by Sens. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and John McCain, R-Ariz. That showdown should come this morning, and if they can break a possible filibuster, they could show no compromise is needed that would fundamentally change the McCain-Kennedy bill.
Senate Democrats on Wednesday night said they had not seen the compromise, much less approved it. “We don’t even know what’s in it,” said Reid spokesman James Patrick Manley.
If the compromise fails, the Senate will leave Washington for a two-week spring recess and nothing to show for a fortnight of heated debate.