WASHINGTON – Majority Leader Bill Frist intends to seek Senate passage of immigration legislation by Memorial Day, hoping to revive a bill that tightens border security and gives millions of illegal immigrants a chance at citizenship, Republican leadership aides said Friday.
In a gesture to conservative critics of the measure, Frist and other Republicans also intend to seek roughly $2 billion in immediate additional spending for border protection.
The aides said the money would allow for training of Border Patrol agents, construction of detention facilities for immigrants caught entering the country illegally, the purchase of helicopters and surveillance aircraft and construction of a fence in high-traffic areas.
The aides spoke on condition of anonymity, saying they did not want to pre-empt a formal announcement.
"The goal here is to make sure that the Senate does act on this problem," said one of the aides.
Frist's decision signals a determination by Republicans to press ahead toward passage of election-year legislation. The issue has triggered large, peaceful street protests by immigrants' rights supporters as well as internal disputes in both political parties and partisan bickering.
A sweeping immigration bill was gridlocked as lawmakers left town two weeks ago after Frist and Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada failed to agree on a procedure for voting on amendments sought by Republicans opposed to the bill. Supporters of the measure claimed at the time they had as many as 70 votes for the bill, and Reid drew criticism from at least one prominent group supporting the measure.
President Bush has repeatedly urged Congress to approve a bill that tightens border security at the same time it addresses the problem of the estimated 11 million men, women and children in the country illegally.
House Republicans have passed a bill that is limited to border security, but leaders have recently signaled they would be receptive to broader legislation.
The measure at the center of the Senate stalemate would provide for stronger border security, regulate the future entry of foreign workers and create a complex new set of regulations for the estimated 11 million immigrants in the country illegally. Officials said an estimated 9 million of them, those who could show they had been in the United States for more than two years, would eventually become eligible for citizenship under the proposal.
Critics of the measure argue it amounts to amnesty, and they have worked over the past two weeks to undermine its support. But Bush has made it clear he wants legislation, and some Republicans hope they can send him a bill and gain credit with voters increasingly dissatisfied with Congress.
The attempt to add $2 billion to border security spending is expected next week, when the Senate is due to debate legislation providing funding for the war in Iraq and relief from last fall's hurricanes.
Some critics of the bill have argued that it makes little sense to pass legislation affecting the current population of illegal immigrants as long as the border remains porous.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told reporters this week he intends to increase enforcement efforts at places of employment.
"We are going to move beyond the current level of activity to a higher level in each month and year to come," he said, pledging to "come down as hard as possible" on violators.
Federal agents on Wednesday arrested seven current and former managers of IFCO Systems, a manufacturer of crates and pallets, on criminal charges, and more than 1,100 people were arrested on administrative immigration charges at more than 40 IFCO sites in the United States.
After the Senate impasse, Democrats said Reid wanted to shelter members of the rank and file from politically difficult votes, particularly on a bill that might have been made dramatically worse from the Democrats' point of view in final talks with Republicans.
He insisted on limiting Republicans to three amendments. Frist countered with 20 or more, and they were unable to reach a compromise.