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Lawmakers: Immigration bill not dead

Specter 'optimistic' as protests highlight political ramifications



Arlen Specter
Bill Frist

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Lawmakers traded blame Sunday over the impasse that left immigration legislation stalled last week in the Senate, expressing hope that the push for an election-year overhaul was not dead.

"I hope it's savable," said Sen. John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat. "I hope politics doesn't get in the way."

Sen. Arlen Specter, the Republican chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said he is "optimistic," but quickly added "I'm always optimistic."

"There's a real risk of significant political fallout here," he told "Fox News Sunday."

In a reminder of the potential political ramifications, tens of thousands of people joined a new series of demonstrations nationwide, demanding rights for illegal immigrants. (Watch thousands take to the streets -- 1:00)

Rallies were held Sunday in Dallas, Texas; St. Paul, Minnesota; and Des Moines, Iowa. Marches are planned for Monday in other cities including Washington; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and Los Angeles, California. (Full story)

Both parties are looking to win over Latinos -- the nation's fastest-growing voting bloc -- in this year's midterm elections.

But some Republicans also fear provisions helping illegal immigrants could damage the party's image as tougher on security issues.

And both parties face internal debates over the kind of legislation that should make it through the Senate.

After being touted as a breakthrough, a compromise drafted by Republican Sens. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Mel Martinez of Florida failed to gain enough support Friday before the Senate began a two-week recess.

Republicans are divided over two of the bill's controversial provisions -- a guest-worker program and a process allowing illegal immigrants to pursue legal status to stay in the country and obtain citizenship.

In his weekly radio address on Saturday, President Bush called the Hagel-Martinez proposal "promising bipartisan compromise on comprehensive immigration reform."

He restated his support for a temporary guest-worker program and rejected "an automatic path to citizenship."

Sen. John Kyl, an Arizona Republican, on Sunday offered support for a temporary-worker program, but not a "pathway to citizenship" or permanent residence for illegal immigrants.

"A temporary-worker program that might be useful to supply labor needs in our country, when they exist, should be exactly that, temporary, so that when the work is not available for them, you haven't turned them into permanent legal residents and thereby created a situation where you have foreign workers here but no job for them," Kyl told CNN's "Late Edition."

Democrats largely support laying out an avenue to citizenship. But even if the Senate manages to pass a bill after its recess, another uphill battle would follow: having to merge it with a very different bill passed by the House in December.

The House bill focuses on security, calling for tougher border enforcement and no such rights for illegal immigrants. It would also fence off 700 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border and make crossing illegally a felony.

A joint committee of members of the House and Senate would have to reach a compromise.

Opposition in the House

The House majority leader on Sunday rejected the Senate's "comprehensive" approach to immigration but didn't rule out a compromise with the Senate.

"I think we can resolve the differences and we can have a strong immigration-reform bill," Rep. John Boehner told ABC's "This Week."

But the Ohio Republican offered no indication how that would be possible.

"I'm for securing the borders and enforcing the laws," Boehner said. "Until we do that, if you try to create a guest-worker program, all you're doing is inviting more illegal immigration."

New York Rep. Peter King, Republican chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, also indicated he would oppose the Senate's legislation.

"First we have to secure the borders," he told "Fox News Sunday." "Otherwise, we're just going to be taking a bad situation and compound it."

Other measures, he said, could be revisited "in 18 months or two years."

But Rep. Luis Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat, cast that position as unfair and impractical.

"We do need reinforcement, but we also need compassion. We need a comprehensive bill, one that takes into account that there are 11 million undocumented workers currently in the United States," he told NBC's "Meet the Press."

"The only sane, sensible, compassionate thing to do is to integrate them fully into the fabric of our society," he said. "And they're necessary to the economic well-being of our country. So let's include them."

Rep. Tom Tancredo, a Colorado Republican, said he does not expect a bill to even get as far as the joint committee.

"I don't think there's more than a 60-40 chance, and 40 being the chance that it would actually get out of the Senate," he told CBS' "Face the Nation."

Specter said he believes there is grounds for an eventual agreement.

"Everybody agrees there's an enormous problem, and everybody agrees with the border security lines," he said.

"I think tempers will cool over a two-week period. And also, there are going to be some expressions by many people very unhappy with the Senate not passing a bill and very unhappy with the House bill."

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