Getting Together at Last on Immigration

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Senate leaders reached a broad bipartisan agreement Thursday morning on immigration reform. The new bill, nominally crafted by Republican Senators Chuck Hagel and Mel Martinez, has at least 65 supporters, by Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman's count, more than enough to override any potential filibuster by remaining opponents on the right and the left. But even if it passes, the final battle is yet to come. The Senate measure must be reconciled with the less forgiving border-security legislation in the House — which, unlike the Senate proposal, has no so-called amnesty provisions for putting illegals on an eventual path to citizenship.

Senate Democrats are trying to get assurances from Republicans that they will vote against any bill that might emerge from a Senate-House conference that would substantially change the deal agreed to Thursday morning. The Democrats also want a say in the makeup of the conference committee. Senator John McCain is assembling Republicans willing to sign on for that, but after moving as far as he has in compromsing on a less stringent bill than what he originally advocated, Majority Leader Bill Frist is making no commitments. "The Senate will defend the Senate position," says Frist chief of staff Eric Ueland, "but you cannot guarantee an outcome." Moreover, the Democrats don't have much leverage: having already signed on for the deal at a press conference Thursday morning, they would have a hard time backing out now.

The compromise that finally got enough Senators to agree came down, in the end, to a numbers game. The estimated one million illegal immigrants who have been in the U.S. for less than two years would have to leave, or remain here illegally. Some three million or so illegal immigrants who have been in the U.S. between two and five years will have to report to their prior port of entry into the U.S. to be reclassified as temporary workers. The roughly 7 million immigrants who've spent more than five years here would be on a virtually guaranteed path to citizenship, provided they stay employed, pay a fine and back taxes and learn English. Meanwhile, the number of new low-skilled "guest workers" allowed in each year will be somewhat less than the 400,000 the Democrats had originally pushed for.

But most crucially in an election year, the Senate's deal on immigration saves face all around. Minority Leader Harry Reid, who failed in his attempt Thursday morning to force through McCain and Ted Kennedy's less stringent version of reform, turned defeat into victory by backing this winner. Frist, who moved from pushing tough border security alone to conditional support for the McCain-Kennedy approach, gets to claim that he put important safeguards into a bill that otherwise would have ultimately made citizens out of most illegals—though the safeguards are largely cosmetic. And remaining Republicans get political cover by supporting a bill that appears to be a Republican product—the names on the bill will now be Hagel and Martinez, even though the "framework" is essentially that proposed by McCain and Kennedy 10 months ago. As Kennedy said at today's news conference, addressing America's illegal immigrants: "You're going to be welcome and you won't have to live in fear."

All eyes now turn to the President. As immigration protesters plan another day of demonstrations next week, Democrats and the lobbyists eager for a deal are banking on not just Bush's support for the Senate deal, but also his willingness to force a recalcitrant House into line.