Both chambers of Congress will vote in the coming days on a bill to legalize children and young adult illegal immigrants - a last-minute attempt to pass something before Republicans take control of the House next year and likely put legalization out of reach.
Facing that closing window, the White House ramped up its lobbying for the bill, and both sides began a late push to sway votes on the measure, which is seen as a bellwether.
"This is their last chance at amnesty. There's no question about that. This is the low-hanging fruit for them. They're not going to get this. They've tried before; they've failed before, and it's over," said Rosemary Jenks, government relations director for NumbersUSA, which lobbies for stricter immigration limits. "It's time for our side to go on offense."
Still, the mere fact that the House and Senate were scheduling votes was a victory for immigration rights advocates, who have struggled for years to push their issue to the forefront of the legislative calendar.
The bill, known as the Dream Act, would give conditional legal status to illegal immigrants who were brought to the U.S. before they were 16, who have earned a high school diploma or certificate, and who are still under 30 years of age. It would further offer a path to citizenship for those who go on to attend college or join the U.S. military.
Backers said it would help a population that had no say in the decision to bring them illegally to the U.S., while opponents said it would cost too much, would open the door to fraud, and could send the wrong signal to other immigrants waiting to come legally.
Now, with Republicans taking control of the House and vowing action on immigration enforcement next year, Democrats are seizing on the short window provided by the lame-duck session of Congress.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Wednesday morning he is pushing for a vote as soon as possible, and House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer followed suit, though he didn't give an exact timetable.
Mr. Hoyer said the House will have the votes to pass the measure, though opponents said it could be a close vote. And it's already running into unified Republican obstruction in the Senate, where all 42 Republicans signed a letter Wednesday saying they will filibuster every bill until Democrats tackle the 2011 spending bills and the Bush tax cuts, which are slated to expire at the end of this month.
Supporters, energized by the prospect of holding a vote for the first time in years, and facing the prospect of stalemate next year, were pushing forward anyway.
"The last bill that I remember voting on related to immigration was the Sensenbrenner bill in late 2005, and this vote will be very different," said Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, Illinois Democrat, who has taken the lead in trying to get an immigration bill passed through Congress.
That 2005 vote was on an enforcement-only bill, which passed the then-Republican controlled House with bipartisan support, but stalled when the Senate wouldn't take it up. By the same token, the House refused to take up a broad legalization bill the Senate passed in 2006 with bipartisan support.
Then, in 2007, after Democrats took control of Congress, the Senate tried again, but saw the bill go down to a dramatic defeat, leaving backers demoralized.
Over the past two years, even though Democrats controlled both the White House and Congress, the issue languished as the majority party acted instead on health care, global warming and financial regulation.
An analysis by the Migration Policy Institute said that as many as 2 million illegal immigrants are of the right age to qualify for temporary legal status under the Dream Act, though criminal and health histories could exclude some of them from the program. And not all of those who do qualify for legal status would eventually earn permanent legal status, MPI said.
The Democratic National Committee sent out a tweet on President Obama's Twitter feed trying to drum up support for the legislation and scheduled a Thursday call with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.
Meanwhile, advocates are intensely lobbying lawmakers' offices. Gabe Gonzalez, chief political strategist for the Fair Immigration Reform Movement, said as of the beginning of this week, supporters made 30,000 calls to members of Congress urging them to pass the bill.
He said the overall goal for immigration rights advocates remains a comprehensive immigration-reform bill that would apply to all of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the country, but added that any incremental steps are welcome.
Lawmakers have been searching for support by tweaking the legislation.
They dropped language that would have undone the federal government's ban on offering illegal-immigrant college students in-state tuition rates, and added more checks illegal immigrants must pass in order to gain legal status.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican, pointedly noted that Democrats have introduced four different versions of the bill in recent days, and said action is premature since the Senate Judiciary Committee hasn't held a hearing in seven years to examine the issue.
"The American people did not vote for an amnesty in this past election," Mr. Sessions said, adding that the bill "will not pass next year."
Mr. Gonzalez, though, said he still sees a path for Senate passage, saying there are at least eight and as many as 10 Republicans who could vote for the Dream Act.
By the same token, though, Ms. Jenks counts at least a handful of Democrats who she said will vote against the bill, and said there are others on the fence.
Both sides are looking to the vote to give them a sense for where the action will be in the next Congress.
"The Senate vote - that's going to tell us which Senate Democrats that are up in 2012 are willing to go with us, because they have to. It's going to tell us which Senate Democrats have seen the writing on the wall and know they can buck their leadership, even though they're not up in 2012," Ms. Jenks said.
But Mr. Gonzalez said the results of last month's elections, in which Hispanic voters helped power Democratic candidates to victory in Senate races in Nevada, Colorado and California, show the political landscape is changing. He said the GOP will recognize the power of those voters.
"I am consistently surprised by where we find support and where we run into roadblocks. We are very clear it's going to be harder, but we find support in the weirdest places," he said.
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