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Frist fires opening shot on immigration

Bush pushes guest-worker program ahead of Mexico summit

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Frist, seen here in a January photo, says amnesty will encourage "further disrespect for the law."

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Senate opened an election-year debate on immigration on Wednesday, with Majority Leader Bill Frist saying he will oppose a controversial proposal to allow illegal immigrants to eventually work toward legal status.

Frist rejected the legalization process -- put forward by the Senate Judiciary Committee -- for more than 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, a plan he said "most Americans would see as amnesty."

"I disagree with this approach, not just as a matter of principle, but because granting amnesty now will only encourage future and further disrespect for the law," the Tennessee Republican said on the Senate floor.

The majority leader has put forth his own immigration proposal, which lacked the legalization process and a provision in the committee's bill to create a guest-worker program allowing immigrants to hold jobs not filled by Americans. (Watch Lou Dobbs debate a worker program -- 13:24)

With Republicans divided in the debate, Frist said Wednesday he would support the guest-worker program, which also has President Bush's backing.

Frist said an immigration bill passed by the House in November, which does not contain a guest-worker program, was "incomplete."

"It fails to provide a comprehensive solution to our immigration situation, one that allows for necessary and helpful legal immigration and that welcomes those who played by the rules," said Frist, who has been mentioned as a possible 2008 presidential candidate. (A look at the competing bills)

But Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter insisted that allowing people already in the country illegally to eventually obtain legal status would not be "amnesty" because it would require them to pay $2,000 in fines, undergo a background check, learn English and work for six years before being granted permanent residency.

"It is not amnesty because the lawbreakers are not being unconditionally forgiven for their transgressions," said Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican. He added that "if there is a better way to bring these 11 million people forward so that we can identify them, we are open to any suggestions that anyone may have."

The bill will come to the Senate floor Thursday afternoon. Frist has blocked out the rest of this week and all of next week for the debate.

The Judiciary Committee's immigration reform bill passed Monday on a 12-6 vote. Six of the 10 Republicans on the committee opposed the measure, in large part because it contained the legalization process for undocumented workers.

While many conservative Republicans and other critics denounce the process as "amnesty," supporters refer to it as "earned citizenship."

A key question will be whether opponents of legalization will have the votes to strip the proposal out of the bill.

At least five of the Senate's 55 Republicans have expressed support for the concept. If Democrats stand united behind it, as they did in the Judiciary Committee, opponents may be hard-pressed to find the 51 votes they would need to take it out of the bill.

That could set up a confrontation with the House, where anti-illegal immigration sentiment is stronger.

The House version of immigration reform not only omitted a guest-worker program and a legalization process, but also made it a felony to come across the border illegally or to help illegal immigrants. It authorized construction of 700 miles of security fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Opposition to such measures helped spur protests in several states in recent days. (Full story)

House Speaker Dennis Hastert indicated Wednesday that the House could potentially accept a guest-worker program.

"Our first priority is to protect the border," the Illinois Republican told Reuters. "We also know that there's a need in some sectors of the economy for a guest-workers' program."

The language in the Judiciary Committee's bill setting up a process by which people in the country illegally could obtain legal status was originally proposed by Sens. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, and Ted Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat. (Watch a fact check on legal immigration -- 1:33)

Also supporting the proposal were Specter and three other Republicans on the committee -- Sens. Sam Brownback of Kansas, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Mike DeWine of Ohio.

Like Frist, both McCain and Brownback are thought to be considering 2008 White House bids.

Bush's balancing act

The immigration bill presents Bush with a tricky balancing act. His guest-worker program has support in the business community, and he has successfully courted Latino support during his presidency.

But he also must deal with an outspoken segment of his conservative base demanding restrictions on immigration.

While he supports a guest-worker program, the president has repeatedly said he does not support "amnesty" for those already here illegally.

The immigration issue is expected to be a major topic of discussion Thursday and Friday when Bush meets with Mexican President Vicente Fox and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Cancun, Mexico. (Watch the roots of Bush's immigration stance -- 2:21)

Hours before he departed for the meeting, Bush reiterated his support for a guest-worker program during a question-and-answer session at Freedom House, a Washington-based pro-democracy group.

"You cannot enforce the border without having a temporary guest-worker program," Bush said. "The two go hand in hand. There are people doing jobs Americans will not do. Many people who have come into our country are helping our economy grow. It's just a fact of life."

"We are a nation of law, but that doesn't preclude us from being a welcoming nation," he said. "I think a system which forces people underground and into the shadows of our society, which causes people to have to sneak across our border and risk their life, is a system that needs to be changed."

Whatever the politics and despite the odds against them, people from countries south of the U.S. border continue to try to cheat death for a chance at the American dream. (Watch desperate immigrants board 'train of death' -- 2:15)

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