The top Democrat and top Republican in the Senate last night said the immigration bill, which stalled last week, will be revived and back on the Senate's agenda next week.
The announcement capped a weeklong effort by a small group of senators that drafted and has defended the bill from critics on the right and the left, and sets the stage for another bruising round of tough votes on border security, family reunification and legalization of illegal aliens.
"We met this evening with several of the senators involved in the immigration bill negotiations. Based on that discussion, the immigration bill will return to the Senate floor after completion of the energy bill," Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a joint statement released after they met and hashed out a tentative agreement.
Sources familiar with the talks said the sides are still negotiating which amendments will be allowed, though they have exchanged lists and have agreed to an approximate number.
The amendments matter because the bill strikes a tenuous balance and those who want it to pass will have to fend off attacks from both liberals and conservatives, each with their own set of criticisms.
Sources familiar with the talks said the agreement does not guarantee that the bill will pass, and Republicans did not promise to deliver enough votes, which Mr. Reid said earlier this week must happen.
The bill stalled a week ago when Mr. Reid called for an end to the debate, prompting 50 senators — 38 Republicans, 11 Democrats and one independent — to balk and vote to prolong the debate and offer more amendments. Mr. Reid then pulled the bill from the schedule.
But under pressure from President Bush, Mr. Reid agreed to return to the bill and Mr. McConnell pledged to limit the number of amendments that Republicans will offer. Last night, the White House said it was "encouraged by the announcement."
The leaders want to finish the bill by the July 4 recess, but there are still plenty of potential pitfalls.
Earlier in the day, Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican and a chief opponent of the bill, said he would use whatever procedural tools he can to block the bill from being revived — a powerful threat in a chamber where one member can delay or block action.
"There are a number of senators who will utilize the powers of the Senate to avoid going back to the failed bill," Mr. Sessions said.
Mr. Bush yesterday tried to win over critics by throwing his support behind a plan to dedicate $4.4 billion to fund border security projects, which he and Congress have approved but never funded. He said he knows voters are skeptical that the laws will be enforced and said this should curb those fears.
"We're going to show the American people that the promises in this bill will be kept," Mr. Bush said, in a speech to a meeting of the Associated Builders and Contractors.
But Republicans who are blocking the Senate bill, called it an empty gesture and rejected what they saw as Mr. Bush's effort to make them accept "amnesty" in exchange for border security.
"There's simply no reason why we should be forced to tie amnesty to it," said Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican. "If the administration was serious about fulfilling the border-security promises, then this funding should have been supported all along, not offered at the last minute to attract votes to a bad bill."
The Senate bill is the result of a "grand bargain" struck by a small bipartisan group of senators and the Bush administration. It ties together a path to citizenship for illegal aliens, a guest-worker program for future workers, and a redesign of the immigration system to favor those with needed skills or education.
The bargain has taken several blows in earlier votes: The guest-worker program was cut in half and senators voted to end it after five years, and an amendment would make it easier to deport illegal aliens who apply but are denied a place in the path to citizenship.
But those in the grand bargain think they can coax the bill through and send it on to the House, where its prospects are less certain.
In a Tuesday meeting with Senate Republicans, Mr. Bush was told that he needed to do more to prove he is serious about the border. Many Republicans encouraged Mr. Bush to send Congress an emergency spending bill to pay for border security — an idea championed by Georgia Republican Sens. Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss, who wrote Mr. Bush a letter asking for the spending bill.
Yesterday, they said this new spending idea falls short because it is not a spending bill.
"I tried to be very respectfully specific in the letter that I signed with Senator Chambliss," Mr. Isakson said. "The credibility question which we all have on this issue is significant enough that it merits that type of commitment."
Mr. Isakson said passing an emergency spending bill would mean that both Congress and the White House have signed off on the money, and there is no question it would be spent.
Other Republicans said they saw Mr. Bush's effort as desperate.
"Bush is clearly trying to buy some border security votes from the Republican senators. I think they've bought all the votes from the Democrats and this is the only place he can go," said Rep. Steve King, Iowa Republican. "He still thinks it's about whether you can make enough promises to sell the bill. What it's really about is the empty promises in the past."