Senate passes immigration bill
GOP divided heading into tough negotiations with House
SENATE BILL PROVISIONS
Establishes a three-tiered path-to-citizenship program, which divides the 11 million to 12 million illegal workers in the United States into three groups:
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Senate approved a wide-ranging overhaul of immigration laws Thursday, voting 62-36 to bolster security at the Mexican border and to grant many illegal immigrants a path toward citizenship.
But the inclusion of that path sets the stage for a battle with the House of Representatives, which passed a stricter bill in December.
Several senators said after the vote that President Bush's participation in the political maneuvering will be key to crafting a compromise. (Watch the challenges that await the bill -- 2:09 )
"I believe we can do it," Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, told reporters. "I believe the president will put a very heavy shoulder to the wheel."
President Bush commended the Senate on its work in "passing bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform."
"I look forward to working together with both the House of Representatives and the Senate to produce a bill for me to sign into law," he said in a statement.
The prospects for that, however, remain uncertain.
Most members of the GOP majority in the Senate voted against the measure, with 23 backing it and 32 opposing. Among Democrats voting, 38 supported the bill and four did not. The chamber's independent Senator voted in favor.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican who voted for the bill, has called for swift talks with the House to mold a compromise measure.
The House bill passed in December focuses on border enforcement, and omits a guest-worker program and a legalization process for illegal immigrants.
In the closing moments of Senate floor debate Wednesday, Specter looked ahead to the conference committee meetings and reminded fellow Republicans that midterm elections are looming.
"There is an important issue, political issue, about the ability of Republicans to govern," the Judiciary Committee chairman said. "There is an election in November, and our leadership positions as Republicans is on the line. And I think that will weigh heavily in the conference."
Frist said "the most contentious part" of the bill is how to handle the status of the millions of illegal immigrants already in the United States.
Under the Senate bill, he said, those who have been in the country two to five years would enter a temporary-worker program, while those inside longer would be eligible for legal status or citizenship after an 11-year probationary period. They would first have to meet other criteria, including learning English, and paying a penalty and back taxes.
Under the Senate legislation, illegal immigrants in the United States less than two years would be returned to their home countries.
Bush supports increased border enforcement and a guest-worker program with a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
The former Texas governor has successfully courted Latino support during his political career, and the worker program he favors has support in the business community.
But conservative critics in his own party say the Senate bill amounts to "amnesty" for illegal immigrants.
"The vast majority of the 11 million or so people here will be given every benefit this nation can bestow as a product of their illegality. I don't think that's a good principle," Sen. Jeff Sessions said.
"We have not developed a plan, even if implemented, that will secure the border," the Alabama Republican said at a news conference held before the vote with five GOP colleagues also opposed to the measure.
Others standing with him asked House negotiators to help keep some of the Senate provisions from becoming law.
"I'm hopeful that the House will save us from this bill," said Sen. John Ensign, a Nevada Republican.
Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, praised the bipartisan work on the bill, but said "it is still a 50-50 proposition to get a bill on the president's desk."
Both sides, he said, will have to make substantial changes, and added that the final legislation cannot be solely an enforcement bill.
Sen. John McCain, a key proponent of the measure, said after the vote that the Senate was sending two messages, the first "to our colleagues on the other side of the Capitol."
"We will sit down and negotiate in good faith to try to resolve an issue that all of us are in total agreement must be resolved," the Arizona Republican said. "We will listen to you, and we hope you will listen to us with respect, and we know that we can work this out."
"The second message is to those who would cross our border illegally: We are going to close our border," he said.
House Majority Leader John Boehner noted the gulf between the two versions of the bill.
"We have two very separate and distinct directions," the Ohio Republican said at a news conference Thursday. "I don't underestimate the difficulty in the House and Senate trying to come together in an agreement."
"But I'm hopeful that we will come to a resolution and pass a bill."
Boehner stressed the importance of the border issue to the House.
"You can't control the problem without first strengthening the borders and beginning to enforce the laws," he said.
Frist had once supported the House version of the bill, which would make illegal immigration a felony.
But the likely 2008 Republican presidential candidate said he has changed his position because "a mature understanding" of the handling of illegal immigrants has emerged in the Senate after two weeks of debate.
Frist acknowledged room for improvement in the legislation, and said it might come during the conference committee meetings.
"People ask me all the time, 'How're you going to put these two together?' I think we will be able to."
As the discussion continued in the U.S. capital, Mexican President Vicente Fox, on whose border the Senate bill also mandates 370 miles of new fencing, was on a swing through Utah, Washington and California.
Fox called the Senate bill "a historic step" and vowed in a speech to the California state legislature that his country will do its part in safeguarding Mexico's border with the United States.
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