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Bush, senators seek common ground on immigration

President: Bill should allow guest workers, improve security
Sen. Harry Reid, normally a Bush critic, had praise for the president after Tuesday's meeting.


George W. Bush

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush met Tuesday at the White House with a bipartisan group of senators to discuss ways to overhaul immigration, a chat that earned the president kudos from two men normally among his staunchest critics.

The discussion came as an immigration bill sits stalled in the Senate and as Majority Leader Bill Frist prepares to bring the issue back to the Senate floor by Memorial Day.

After the meeting, the senators said Bush expressed support for a package that would create a guest-worker program and would determine ways to address the status of more than 11 million illegal immigrants in the country. (Watch how many people favor legalizing immigrants who have been in the U.S. a long time -- 3:22)

Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy called the meeting a "bipartisan coming-together" and said, "We still have a ways to go, but I certainly appreciate the president's involvement and his willingness to be engaged."

Kennedy was joined by another of Bush's most outspoken critics, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, who acknowledged he wasn't "in the habit of patting the president on the back.

"This was really good, a good, good meeting," Reid said. "He laid out what he believes are the important issues of the legislation, and I think they are there."

Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Bush said he and senators concurred that any bill must enforce the nation's borders while providing the framework for a temporary worker program.

"It is important that we reform a system that is not working. It's important that we uphold the values of the United States of America. It's important that we treat people with dignity," the president said. "I strongly believe that we have a chance to get an immigration bill that is comprehensive in nature to my desk before the end of this year."

And though the president maintained his opposition to what he called "automatic amnesty" for illegal immigrants already in the country, he also expressed support for "a bill that says somebody who's working here on a legal basis has the right to get in line to become a citizen."

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, a Republican of Pennsylvania, said the president told senators specifically what he does and does not want in an immigration bill.

The meeting "gives assurances that if we pass legislation of that sort that we will have support from the president" in negotiating a final bill with the House, Specter said.

In December, the House passed a bill that includes neither a guest-worker program nor any legalization process for illegal immigrants already in the country.

Bush praised Kennedy and Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who have been pushing a measure that would allow illegal immigrants to earn legal status by working six years, paying a fine, learning English and undergoing a background check.

But critics, many of them in Bush's political base, dismissed the McCain-Kennedy proposal as "amnesty" for lawbreakers. Supporters of the plan call it "earned citizenship" and say the measure would help bring illegal immigrants out of hiding.

A top House Republican said Tuesday that the Senate would be making a "very big mistake" if it adopts a bill that sets up a process for illegal immigrants to gain legal status.

"You're just inviting more people to come," said House Majority Leader John Boehner of Ohio. "I don't think it would be supported at all by the American people."

Republican Sens. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Mel Martinez of Florida cobbled together a compromise that would make the legalization process more difficult for immigrants who have been in the country fewer than five years.

The bill stalled, however, when Reid objected to Frist's decision to let GOP senators offer amendments to the measure.

When Frist brings the bill back to the floor, it will include a proposal to add $2 billion to beef up border security. A GOP aide called it a "bow" to the bill's conservative critics.

Reid said legislators made "great progress" in Tuesday's meeting, though he and Frist will have to work out the procedural steps necessary to navigate the bill through the Senate.

Supporters say the Hagel-Martinez compromise has the blessing of 65 to 70 senators, enough to overcome a possible filibuster by conservatives who object to including the legalization process in the bill.

CNN's Dana Bash contributed to this report.

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