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INSIDE POLITICS

Lawmakers draw immigration battle lines

Frist calls for compromise, predicts passage of bill this week

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- On the eve of a showdown over what could be a historic overhaul of U.S. immigration law, congressmen drew lines in the sand Sunday, leaving it all but impossible to envision what kind of legislation might ultimately win passage.

"It is incumbent upon us in the Senate to compromise," Majority Leader Bill Frist said on CNN's "Late Edition." He called the nation's immigration system "flat-out broken."

Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, cast the fight ahead -- and the impact it might have on Latino citizens, the nation's fastest-growing voting bloc -- as "a defining moment for the Republican Party."

The fierce debates -- centering mostly on what to do about the millions of undocumented immigrants in the country -- don't fall along a simple partisan divide. Splits within each party and a wedge between many Republicans and President Bush lay the groundwork for a passionate, bitter battle.

The Senate began deliberations Thursday and plans to try to tackle the issue this week.

Even if it manages to pass a bill this week, as Frist predicted Sunday, another fight likely would follow in the joint House-Senate Conference Committee, with some House members fighting for a tougher bill than the Senate is set to consider.

"There's a chasm between the House and the Senate," Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, said on CBS's "Face the Nation."

"It's the toughest thing I've done in 37 years in public office," Rep. James Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, told CBS. He is one of many House members opposing legislation passed last week by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

That committee's bill lays out steps for millions of illegal immigrants in the United States to obtain permanent residence or citizenship. It also strips Sensenbrenner's provision in the House bill that would make undocumented immigrants and those who help them felons.

"I think we have a majority for a bill along the lines that came out of the Judiciary Committee," Sen. Barack Obama, an Illinois Democrat, said on ABC's "This Week."

"What I'm not yet certain of is whether we have a 60-vote majority. It is possible that opponents of the legislation [could] mount a filibuster."

Graham, speaking on "Fox News Sunday," said such a move would draw the ire of millions of Latinos and would be an act of "political suicide."

Sen. George Allen, a Virginia Republican who staunchly opposes any legislation allowing illegal immigrants to achieve citizenship without leaving the country first, did not rule out the parliamentary procedure.

"I don't like the concept of filibustering," he told ABC. "How it results, I can't predict right now."

Allen acknowledged that he, and others like him, are at odds with Bush over a so-called guest worker program that would allow undocumented immigrants to stay in the country legally as workers.

"I don't think we ought to be passing anything that rewards illegal behavior or amnesty. Is that different than the president's position? Apparently so, but I'm going to stick to the principle: First and foremost, we need to secure our borders," he said.

But Sen. Evan Bayh, an Indiana Democrat, told CNN the country must "find a way, without rewarding violating the law, to bring [illegal immigrants] out of the shadows, impose fines, criminal background checks, paying back taxes, learning English, those kinds of things. ... But then have some kind of regular status here. Because the truth is that's in our national security interest, too."

Many lawmakers on all sides of the debate say they agree that the nation's borders -- currently porous, allowing people to flock in illegally -- need to be secured.

Many also say it is impossible to send millions of illegal immigrants home -- and that the only practical approach would be to provide an avenue for citizenship.

"How can you send 11 million people back to the country they came from?" Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, said on NBC's "Meet the Press."

"It's very important that we handle this issue with sensitivity and humanity," McCain said.

"This is a defining moment for the Republican Party," Graham said on "Fox News Sunday."

"If our answer to the fastest-growing demographic in this country is that we want to make felons of your grandparents and we want to put people in jail who are helping your neighbors and people related to you, then we're going to suffer mightily."

Graham was among the four Republicans who joined with all eight Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee to approve legislation that would allow undocumented immigrants to stay if they paid fines and taxes and continued to work. In total, the process would take 11 years.

Bush's guest worker plan would not allow illegal immigrants to obtain citizenship but would let them stay in the country as legal residents.

"You cannot enforce the border without having a temporary guest worker program," Bush said this week. "The two go hand in hand. There are people doing jobs Americans will not do."

Frist and others argue such a proposal amounts to "amnesty" -- and that the guest workers who come to the United States to take jobs Americans are not taking should be hired legally from their home countries.

Still, he showed a sign of possible compromise. The Senate, Frist said, needs to recognize that the millions of illegal immigrants are "not a monolithic group," and that some have been here for many years. They "may have a road to a green card," he said.

Lawmakers will also debate ways to enforce border security, including the possibility of establishing a wall or fence for hundreds of miles of the Mexican border.

Political resonance

The issue carries heavily political resonance, as both parties vie for votes among Latinos, the fastest growing U.S. voting bloc, while still trying to look strong on security measures.

Lawmakers noted the massive protests -- composed largely of Latino immigrants and their supporters -- that have taken place across the country in recent weeks. Thousands turned out for a demonstration in New York City on Saturday. (Full story)

Obama said he does not believe the debate nationwide is as fierce as the one in Washington.

"I think the broader story here is that the American people have a pretty good common-sense approach to immigration," Obama told ABC.

"They're willing to provide a pathway to citizenship," he added. "They're willing to go along as long as they feel the borders are actually secured and people aren't being exploited."

The Mexican government supports the guest worker concept, arguing that it would help relieve security pressures along the border.

Mexican President Vicente Fox, after discussing illegal immigration last week during a meeting with Bush, denied suggestions Sunday that his government encourages its citizens to sneak into the United States.

"That's not true. We work hard on the opposite, in trying to build up opportunities here in Mexico," Fox said on CNN's "Late Edition."

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