Senators agree on ‘amnesty’ proposal

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Senate leaders reached an agreement yesterday on immigration reform legislation that would strengthen border security but also would allow millions of illegal aliens who have been in the U.S. for two years or longer to apply for citizenship.

Derided by conservatives as “amnesty,” the proposal could be amended but senators on both sides of the aisle say they doubt it will be dramatically altered.

“Senate Republicans are united in their commitment to an open and full debate on multiple amendments,” said a statement from seven Republicans who represent the full spectrum of positions on immigration reform.

“We are willing to put differences aside so we can get on with the important work to be done securing our borders and grappling with the 12 million illegal immigrants currently living in our country,” said the group that included Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Sen. John Cornyn of Texas.

“We are also in agreement that efforts to curtail the debate prematurely will only derail this process. We call on Senate Democrats to allow an open debate and votes on this complex and challenging issue,” the statement read.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, with whom Mr. Frist has been negotiating for weeks, said he “welcomed” the return of the thorny bill to the floor.

“America’s immigration system is broken, and our national security depends on Republicans and Democrats finding common ground to fix it,” he said yesterday. “The assurances I have received from Senator Frist make me hopeful we can finally move forward on real comprehensive reform.”

While yesterday’s agreement will unstick the Senate bill, high hurdles remain in the House, which last year approved a much tougher bill that dealt only with strengthening the border and enforcing the federal immigration laws already on the books.

Debate on immigration legislation collapsed last month after Democrats refused to allow amendments. They accused Republicans opposed to amnesty of trying to sabotage the bill. They also refused to approve any legislation without guarantees that House negotiators wouldn’t throw out all the “amnesty” provisions in the Senate version in favor of the security-only House bill.

Under yesterday’s deal, there was no set limit on the number of amendments that could be offered but earlier in the week Republicans said they are committed to 20 Republican amendments and 10 from Democrats.

In return, 19 of the 26 senators who will negotiate with the House on the final bill will be people Mr. Reid wanted. Already, 12 members of the Senate Judiciary Committee have been selected as conferees, largely fulfilling Mr. Reid’s request that the committee be responsible for negotiating with the House. On top of that, Mr. Reid will pick seven more as-yet-unnamed conferees, as will Mr. Frist.

Rep. Tom Tancredo, Colorado Republican, said yesterday’s developments did not bode well.

“By caving in to the Democrats this morning, Bill Frist pushed the Senate towards the biggest illegal alien amnesty in American history,” he said. “It is a sad day for legal immigrants who embrace this country by following our laws, and it is a sad day for all Americans who are concerned about our national and economic security. Frist has put the Senate on a collision course with the House.”

The executive branches of both the U.S. and Mexico applauded the deal.

“We congratulate the Senate on reaching agreement and we look forward to passage of a bill prior to Memorial Day,” said an optimistic Dana Perino, White House spokeswoman.

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