WASHINGTON – Republicans and Democrats were nearing a deal Tuesday on a sweeping immigration overhaul that would give millions of illegal immigrants a chance at legal status but strictly limit future arrivals from staying in the U.S.
Senators and White House officials negotiating through the afternoon and into the evening said an elusive compromise was in sight. With details changing rapidly, it was unclear whether the talks would result in a breakthrough or a meltdown.
"Eighty-twenty!" said an upbeat Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., one of the key players in the talks, giving strong odds of a deal he said could be announced as early as Wednesday.
In a hopeful sign for a potential deal, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., postponed until Monday a vote that had been scheduled for Wednesday on bringing up an immigration measure that passed the Senate last year.
That bill had the support of most Democrats but was opposed by a majority of Republicans, who had promised to block it. The vote — designed to pressure negotiators into reaching a new deal — was shaping up as a highly partisan start to the already intense debate over immigration.
Delaying it gave the weeks-long set of closed-door bipartisan talks — slated to continue early Wednesday — more time.
Negotiators led by conservative Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., and liberal Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., were scrambling to piece together a compromise that could command broad support, melding the GOP's preference for get-tough enforcement measures and limits on future immigration with Democrats' desire for a more welcoming approach.
The proposed agreement would allow illegal immigrants to come forward and obtain a probationary "Z visa" and — after paying fees and fines of up to $5,000 and returning to their home countries — ultimately try for permanent residency, which could take between eight and 13 years. The process couldn't begin until border security improvements and a high-tech worker identification program were completed.
A new temporary guest worker program would also have to wait until those so-called "triggers" had been activated. And all but the highest-skilled temporary workers would have to return home after work stints of two or three years, with barely any opportunity to apply for permanent legal status or ever become U.S. citizens.
Only 10,000 green cards annually would be available for guest workers, and they would be awarded on a so-called "points system" that favors higher-skilled and better-educated immigrants.
"We're trying to make sure that people who are temporary workers don't melt into society and put down roots. Temporary means temporary," Graham said.
Negotiators were still weighing the particulars of the guest worker program, including the length of the visas and whether to allow workers to renew them multiple times.
In perhaps its most contentious change, the proposed plan would radically shift the entire immigration system from one heavily weighted toward family ties toward one with preferences for those with advanced degrees and sophisticated skills. Family connections alone would no longer be enough to qualify for a green card, although senators were still haggling over how heavily points for family ties would be weighed.
U.S. citizens would see their ability to bring foreign-born parents to the U.S. limited. Temporary workers could not bring family members at all unless they accepted a shorter-term visa and could show they would not become primarily dependent on government benefits.
Behind the scenes, some Democrats and liberal groups are deeply divided over whether the proposal is worth supporting. Leading Republicans, too, warned that they were wary of being pushed too far in the interests of a compromise.
"We need to have immigration reform, but not just any immigration reform," said Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., the party whip. "We're not going to be forced into passing a bad bill."