WASHINGTON – The Senate appeared to be stalling on immigration reform Wednesday, with members on both sides of the aisle predicting no bill would make it out of the body, at least not before the chamber leaves for a two-week Easter recess on Friday.
While the House has approved an immigration reform plan, none of the plans on deck in the Senate has the 60 votes needed to break a deal-busting filibuster. The Senate was expected to hold a vote Thursday, but the outcome was by no means certain.
"[Democrats] are willing to let these people continue to struggle. They are willing to let our national security be compromised, willing to let our system be crippled," Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said Wednesday after a lunchtime meeting with key Republicans and Democrats failed to yield a compromise.
"They show a lack of courage, I think, convictions and leadership to fix the problem," he said.
The ongoing debate shifted again Wednesday when the focus changed over which of the 11 million or more illegal immigrants in the United States could get preference on the road toward citizenship.
As President Bush urged quick action on immigration, Republicans floated the idea of a cutoff date for those who entered the United States illegally. The date hasn't been determined, but immigrants who entered before the time set, paid back taxes and a fine and were English proficient — elements laid out in the main bill now being debated — could be eligible for citizenship. Those who entered afterward would be all but banned from citizenship.
The cutoff date plan, known as the "roots concept" by Republicans, would favor those who have lived in the United States longer than five years.
"There has to be some cutoff date. They would not have a status," said Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan.
The roots plan would be an alternate to the plan forwarded by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., which contains a guest worker proposal but makes no distinction between new illegals and those who are well-settled in the country.
The Kennedy-McCain bill has support from the majority in the Senate, but not enough support to break a filibuster. It would create a guest worker program that would allow immigrants who entered illegally to legally stay in the country to work and obtain green cards after six years. It also lets any illegal who arrived before Jan. 7, 2004, to get on the path to citizenship if they maintain jobs and meet the other conditions.
Critics say that plan, which was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee, amounts to amnesty for illegal immigrants by giving them favorable treatment in the citizenship process over those who are attempting to enter the country legally.
The roots plan, proposed by Republican Sens. Mel Martinez of Florida and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, attempts to stratify illegal immigrants into categories based on how long they have been in the United States. According to a Frist aide, it was modified Wednesday to classify illegals into three groups:
— Illegals in the United States less than two years would be required to leave immediately. If caught once, they would be subject to a misdemeanor, and if caught twice they would be charged with a felony. About 2 million to 3 million people fall into this category.
— Illegals in the United States between two and five years would have go to one of 16 ports of entry in the United States, determined by the U.S. Visit program, and declare themselves. They would be given a temporary visa and allowed back to their U.S. residences immediately. Once in the United States, they could apply for the citizenship path spelled out in the McCain-Kennedy bill. About 3 million to 4 million people fall into this category.
— Illegals who could prove they have been in the United States for more than five years would immediately be given guest worker status and would get on the 11-year path to citizenship. They would not have to declare themselves as guest workers. This path would be open to about 5 million people.
Bush on Wednesday asked the Senate "to come to a conclusion as quickly as possible and pass a comprehensive bill." He has lobbied for a guest worker plan similar to the McCain-Kennedy proposal, but said lawmakers should not provide "amnesty."
Continuing to stump for his bill on Wednesday, Kennedy told a group of evangelical Christians that it would be the ”wrong judgment" if the Senate chose a bill that was more in line with the House version approved in December. That bill does not include provisions for a guest worker program and makes illegal immigration a felony offense.
"I think that is the wrong judgment. People who have studied it understand it is the wrong judgment," Kennedy said, adding that the proposal "hasn't got the support of the American people.
"We have to make judgments and we'll have an opportunity to do so tomorrow," Kennedy said.
While lawmakers were pushing to hold a decisive vote Thursday, some said the likelihood of reaching a consensus was dimming.
"I don't know that we're going to get a bill," said Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio. "It's tough."
"We have not yet been able to reach agreement on voting on key Amendments," Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said on the Senate Floor Wednesday.
In a fairly rare move late Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., tried to shut off debate on the McCain-Kennedy bill. Reid and the vast majority of the Democratic caucus are in favor of the bill, and the move prevents any votes on amendments that would modify it, including changes that would not affect the substance of the guest worker program.
In response, Republicans accused Democrats of being "obstructionists."
"The other side is delaying, postponing, obstructing and not allowing votes on amendments," Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said.
But Republicans are the most divided on a plan. If Frist is unable to find a compromise by the end of the day, he will not be able to get a "cloture vote" to end debate and move to a final vote on Friday, as required by Senate procedures.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., acknowledged that the bill supported by Democrats did not have the votes needed to cut off debate, but said Democrats had to move because they feared Frist was going to let the clock expire on the bill, in its second week on the floor.
Frist has not counted the votes for the McCain-Kennedy bill, fueling speculation that he would rather let it die than get any immigration bill passed. By not counting the vote, he can paint the picture that the Judiciary Committee bill doesn't have the votes and compromise is needed, two Republican aides said.
If a bill does pass the Senate, any differences will have to be negotiated with the House. Speaker Dennis Hastert didn't rule out including elements of the Senate bill.
"We will entertain what the Senate puts forward," Hastert said Wednesday, adding that he hopes the Senate is able to pass a bill because the issue needs to be addressed and "the American people think it's important."
"It's vitally important for the Senate to pass a bill and send the bill to conference committee this week, because the result of doing nothing will be the worst possible of all worlds," said Sen. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., sponsor of the House bill.
"Regardless of what the final bill in the Senate looks like, the final product of immigration reform and border security will be written in conference committee. And you don't get to conference committee if the Senate doesn't pass a bill," he said.
FOX News' Trish Turner and The Associated Press contributed to this report.