Efforts to allow illegal immigrants to eventually become legal U.S. residents were given little chance of winning congressional approval as the Senate began work on an election-year immigration bill.

The legislation pits several Republican constituencies against each other. Social conservatives and governors say the tide of illegal immigrants is overwhelming their state budgets, but businesses say they want to keep them as a source of labor.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said he does not object to allowing illegal immigrants to earn legal permanent residency after several years of work, as proposed by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass.

"The political reality is that is going to be very, very difficult to do and to get a bill, if there is no penalty to pay for coming into this country illegally," Specter said.

Specter's committee held its first meeting aimed at trying to complete a bill by the end of March that accommodates all sides in the most controversial domestic issue before Congress this year.

"I have seen virtually no agreement on anything. Emotions are at an all-time high," Specter said.

President Bush has been hoping to deliver a temporary worker program that would allow illegal aliens to keep their jobs in hotels, restaurants, nurseries, agriculture and other businesses that rely on low-wage laborers.

Bush, however, has not been part of the push to allow them to earn legal citizenship without making them return to their home country at some point and then apply for legal residency.

Bob Dolibois, executive vice president of the American Nursery & Landscape Association, said businesses are reluctant to invest in training illegal immigrants if they're going to have to leave the United States.

"We have 8 million workers who are gainfully employed today in this country. Some of them have been trained, businesses have invested in them, they have invested in America, and these people have families," Dolibois said. "To eliminate the possibility of them becoming American citizens would result in the potential gutting of investment that employers and employees have made in America so far."

Other senators affirmed Specter's doubts about support for a legalization program.

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said Specter's proposal, which would allows illegal immigrants here before Jan. 4, 2004, to participate in a temporary worker program, is a "wink and a nod" to amnesty.

"Some say it's not amnesty. I say it is. It's a backdoor approach," Grassley said. Specter's bill, he said, "doesn't force illegal aliens to go home. If it looks, acts and smells like amnesty, then it is amnesty."

Specter's bill would allow illegal workers now in the U.S. to obtain a three-year work visa that could be renewed one time for another three years. To work more than six years would require immigrants to return to their native countries for a year.

The program is restricted to immigrants who pass background checks, plead guilty to entering the country illegally and pay back taxes.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a co-sponsor of the McCain-Kennedy legislation, said the idea of telling everyone to go home is unrealistic.

The bill by McCain and Kennedy would allow immigrants to apply for legal residency after working six years in the temporary worker program without having to leave the country.

"The United States benefits in an important way from immigration, but these benefits are substantially undermined and even reversed when immigrants have no way to obtain legal status," Kennedy said.

The House last month passed legislation to tighten border controls and force employers to confirm the legal status of their workers.