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Deal gives immigration bill new life

Story Highlights

• Compromise reached requires $4 billion for security, enforcement
• Comprehensive immigration bill had stalled last week in Senate
• Senators might be able to trade limited changes for holdout votes
• Measure could be reconsidered as early as end of next week
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The morning after Senate leaders had revived his immigration reform bill, which a week ago appeared stalled, President Bush spoke to the Latino group Esperanza -- "hope" in Spanish.

"I continue to work closely with members of both parties to get past our differences and pass a bill I can sign this year," the president said at Esperanza's annual National Hispanic Prayer Breakfast.

"At this breakfast we set aside our politics and come together in prayer," Bush said. "Each day our nation fails to act, our problem only grows worse."

There are an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States, most of them from Mexico.

The contentious immigration bill stalled in the Senate last week, preventing many senators from offering amendments. Thursday night's agreement would allow about 20 amendments to be considered -- half from each party.

Debate could begin late next week after the Senate finishes work on an energy bill.

Democrats and Republicans hope to keep details of the amendments from the public until the debate begins, a Republican senator said.

No negotiating among lawmakers was expected this weekend but staff members might confer, the senator said.

A tentative agreement was reached Thursday evening after a full day of negotiations in an office near the Senate floor. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, and key architects of the bill then met to reach final agreement on the details.

Reid had pulled the bill from the floor last week after most Republicans balked at cutting off further amendments and moving toward a vote. The Democratic leader said he was willing to revive the bill if it was clear there was enough Republican support to move the bill forward.

Thursday's breakthrough came just hours after Bush threw his support behind an amendment -- sponsored by Republican Sens. Jon Kyl of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina -- that would provide an additional $4.4 billion for border security and work site immigration enforcement. The amendment is a bid to answer concerns from some GOP critics that the security aspects of the bill weren't tough enough.

"We're going to show the American people that the promises in this bill will be kept," Bush said.

Bush had made a rare trip to Capitol Hill on Tuesday after returning from the G8 summit in Germany to do a little arm-twisting of GOP senators who opposed the bill.

Republicans said Bush's renewed push made a difference.

Two of the legislation's architects -- Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Massachusetts and Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Florida, spoke after Bush at the Esperanza breakfast.

"This is about hope and opportunity and progress," Kennedy told the group. "Those are the elements which are the essence of what this country's about. This country isn't just described by geography. This country is defined by its values."

Kennedy praised his Senate colleague, Martinez.

"On this issue, he's been courageous over a long period of time. ... We have to come together to find common ground. The idea of failure is not an option," Kennedy said. As chairman of the Judiciary Committee's Immigration Subcommittee, Kennedy has been the Senate's leading negotiator with the White House on the issue.

Martinez added: "The next week is going to be critical, because there are going to be forces that are going to want to see this bill derailed. We've made great progress. We're at the cusp. We've almost got it out of the Senate, and then it will have to go to the House. The battle is long and the battle is hard."

In addition to beefing up border security and increasing the number of Border Patrol agents, the immigration measure would create a guest worker program, which would allow migrant workers from other countries to work temporarily in the Untied States.

The most controversial aspect of the bill is the creation of a pathway to legalization and eventual citizenship for the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants already in the country, an idea which critics dismiss as "amnesty."

But Bush, speaking Thursday to the Associated Builders and Contractors -- a group whose members rely on immigrant labor -- insisted once again that the bill's pathway to legalization is not amnesty.

"Amnesty is forgiveness with no penalty for people who have broken our laws to get here," he said. "This bill requires illegal workers to pay a fine to register with the government, to undergo background checks, to pay their back taxes, to hold down a steady job and to learn English in a set period of time."

Bush also said some opponents of the bill seem to "believe that we could just kick (illegal immigrants) out of the country."

"That's just totally impractical. It won't work," Bush said.

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President Bush speaks at the National Hispanic Prayer Breakfast on Friday in Washington about hopes for his revived immigration bill.

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