Senators said Thursday that although some fine-tuning still must be done, a consensus has been reached among Republican and Democratic lawmakers on a compromise immigration reform package that puts illegals onto three tracks toward legal status in the United States.
The compromise comes at the same time the Senate failed a "cloture vote" on an immigration reform bill that passed the Senate Judiciary Committee, but did not have the support of 60 senators. The 39-60 vote against the bill acts like a filibuster by preventing the end of debate, leaving the legislation in suspended animation, an effective death blow.
While the vote was happening, some senators held a press conference to announce the alternate bill, which had the support of a majority of the 55 Senate Republicans and several Democrats who are trying to get something rather than nothing.
"The good news is that because of the hard work of the people who are with me, we've had a huge breakthrough which will allow us to pivot in the next several hours that will lead us to the conclusion of passing a very important bill," said Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn. He was surrounded by Sens. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee; Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., co-sponsor of the failed legislation; and Harry Reid, D-Nev., the Senate minority leader.
"While it admittedly is not perfect, the choice we have to make is whether the bill is better than no bill. And I think that is decisive," said Specter, who supported the Democrat-favored bill.
President Bush, traveling in North Carolina, said he was pleased senators were able to find a compromise.
"I appreciate their understanding that this needs to be a comprehensive immigration bill," the president said. "I recognize that there are still details that need to be worked out. I would encourage the members to work hard to get the bill done prior to the upcoming break."
The compromise centers on two of the toughest issues in the immigration debate: creating a path to legalization for 11 million illegal workers in America now and a temporary worker program for future illegals seeking to work legally in America.
It builds on the defeated measure, proposed by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. That bill contains a guest worker proposal that would have allowed immigrants who entered illegally to stay legally in the country to work and obtain green cards after six years. It also would have let any illegal who arrived before Jan. 7, 2004, to get on the path to citizenship if they maintained jobs and met other conditions. Those include paying back taxes and a fine and being English proficient.
But the compromise measure proposed, first floated Monday night by Republican Sens. Mel Martinez of Florida, himself an immigrant, and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, would create a three-layer system for current illegal immigrants to gain legal status in the country. 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.
The roots plan gives consideration to much of the McCain-Kennedy bill in terms of the hoops set for illegals to climb through on the path to citizenship, including passing national security and criminal background checks, having been employed for three of the last five years, registering for the Selective Service and working an additional six years after the bill's enactment to ensure that their status is not adjusted before those who are already in line.
It also sets a number of 325,000 — down from 400,000 in the prior bill — of temporary work visas allowed each year. Workers could shift jobs without penalty, being allowed to move from agriculture to service industries without losing their legal status. Before filling any jobs with temporary illegal workers, employers must advertise the job publicly at the prevailing local wage for that job — only after failing to fill that job with legal American workers can the employer hire a temporary illegal immigrant.
The compromise creates a tiered system that gives preference to illegals who have been in the United States longer and have established roots in their communities:
— 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 illegals living in the United States.
Support has not been completely lined up. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, issued a statement late Wednesday that avoided taking a position on the proposal, but he is expected to oppose it. In his statement, he said he remains "adamant that we not repeat the mistakes of the 1986 bill, a measure widely viewed as having imposed amnesty on those in the country illegally."
The bill also faces amendments and other objections on the Senate floor.
"We're almost there. We're not there. We still have some obstacles. The leader and I have spoken about them the last few hours. There's other pieces of legislation that may interfere. We have some amendments we have to vote on that are going to be hurtful to some people and not to others," said Reid.
"So even though we all feel good about today, it pales in comparison to the millions and millions of people out there who today feel that they have a chance to participate in the American dream," he 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, and Sen. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., the sponsor of the more restrictive House bill that passed in December said something must come from the Senate if a final product approved by both chambers is going to be enacted.
FOX News' Trish Turner and The Associated Press contributed to this report.