WASHINGTON – The Senate plan to provide illegal immigrants with a shot at citizenship probably is a deal-breaker that will prevent passage of a compromise on immigration overhaul, the House's lead negotiator said Sunday.
"The words 'path to citizenship' is a buzzword for amnesty. We ought to be honest, it is amnesty," said Rep. James Sensenbrenner, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
The Senate bill passed last week would tighten border security, offer a guest worker programs to bring in new foreign workers and provide a chance at citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants already in the country.
The House bill generally is limited to border enforcement and cracking down on employers who hire illegal immigrants.
Negotiators from both chambers will try to reconcile the differences and agree on a compromise.
Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., answered a flat "no" when asked Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press" whether he would accept any legislation that would put illegal immigrants on a path to citizenship.
Sensenbrenner said the United States 20 years ago passed a bill that allowed illegal immigrants to stay in the United States and become American citizens. He said that only increased the flow of illegal immigrants.
Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., said the Senate took a comprehensive approach to dealing with illegal immigration and he took issue with Sensenbrenner's characterization of the Senate's approach.
"Amnesty. That's nonsense," Hagel said.
Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said he, but not necessarily the Senate, could accept a phased-in compromise: enforcement first, then moving to citizenship issues.
"I personally would, because I think, first and foremost, you've got to lock down the borders. You can't allow this hemorrhaging of millions of people," the Senate majority leader said on "FOX News Sunday."
The No. 2 Senate Democrat said he agreed that border enforcement has to be the first priority and then employers have to know they will be held accountable if they hire illegal workers.
"And then, finally, we have to deal with the people who are here living in the shadows. It's not amnesty. It's not automatic. As Senator Frist explained, it's a long, tough process that many of them will not complete successfully, but at least gives them a chance."
Hagel said the Senate bill would require all immigrant workers to have a tamperproof identification card. They would not be allowed to get a job without it. He said the United States cannot ignore their existence by just focusing on border security.
"To just walk away from it and say, 'Well we're going to enforce our borders first and then maybe we'll get to the rest of it,' we fail the American public," Hagel said.