Senate Works to Find Middle Ground on Immigration

Charles Babington, congressional reporter for The Washington Post, checks in from Capitol Hill, where the Senate is struggling to find consensus on an immigration bill.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

After months of deliberation, the Senate may be close to an agreement on an immigration bill.

At a news conference earlier today on Capital Hill, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist described the news this way:

Senator BILL FRIST (Republican, Tennessee; Senate Majority Leader): 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.

CONAN: Details have yet to be soused out completely, but the president is expected to approve the Senate version of the bill later today.

To tell us more, we're joined now by Charles Babington, Congressional reporter for the Washington Post. He's with us by phone from Capital Hill. Nice to have you back on the program.

Mr. CHARLES BABINGTON (Congressional Reporter, The Washington Post): Thanks for having me, Neal.

CONAN: So what are the key provisions of this agreement?

Mr. BABINGTON: The key provisions deal with the roughly 11 or 12 million illegal immigrants in the country now. It would divide them into three groups. Those who have been here five years or more would be on, perhaps, the clearest pathway to citizenship. They would not have to go back; if they paid fines, if they paid taxes--back taxes--if they learned English, had a clean criminal record, full employment, then they could apply for citizenship down the road.

In the middle category, those who've been here two to five years would be in a somewhat different category. They would, at some point, not immediately, but at some point have to go back to a point of entry and apply for a guest worker status. Then they also could possibly be on a path towards citizenship.

And then the final group is those who've been here less than two years, and basically the idea is that they would have to go back to their original country, and they could just apply to try to get into the country like anyone else.

CONAN: Senate Minority Leader, the Democratic leader, Harry Reid, said this agreement is still tentative. Are there chances that this could fall through?

Mr. BABINGTON: There are chances, Neal, that it could fall through. It sounds like the votes are probably there, that this has reached enough of the middle of both parties, a pretty fat chunk of the middle of both parties, if you will. In the Senate, as you know, you've got to get, you know, 60 votes to overcome a filibuster that can stop, you know, almost anything; and so 60 votes, not 50, or 51, is the magic number. And it looks like the people that are most unhappy about this are some quite conservative Republicans who felt that it goes too far in allowing illegal immigrants to become legal. And perhaps some of the most liberal Democrats really like the bill that came out of the committee, but even Ted Kennedy embraced this thing. Because he knew that they really could not get the bill that he would have preferred.

CONAN: And, it's still not a done deal in the United States Senate, and it is quite different, this compromise you've outlined, from the bill that passed in the House of Representatives.

Mr. BABINGTON: Drastically different, Neal. And that's the key. Back in December, the House passed a bill that has none of these elements. It doesn't deal in any way with helping legalize the 11 million illegal immigrants who are here now. It dealt only with border, you know, tougher border security, cracking down on illegal immigrants, cracking down on their employers. And therefore, it's dramatically different from the direction that the Senate is going in.

And I think what's going to really be crucial there, when and if they do get to try and reconcile these two bills in a conference, the President, I think is really going to have to lean on House Republicans to come much closer to the Senate bill. And in his, you know, somewhat weakened political position, because of his low poll numbers and that sort of thing, it's going to be real interesting to see how the House Republicans respond to that.

CONAN: Well, John Baynor, the new majority leader, he's indicated some willingness to be flexible. But has the White House, to your knowledge, reached out to James Sensenbrenner, for example, who's pretty much the author of the House version of the bill?

Mr. BABINGTON: Not to my knowledge. It's possible that they have, but more likely, Neal, they would wait until the time is ripe, as you might say. So that is a ways off. Maybe, you know, weeks, or even months. I'm not really sure what the timeframe would be.

You know, you had a similar situation a few months ago on trying to renew the Patriot Act. And you may recall that. And Sensenbrenner, because of his chairmanship of the House Judiciary Committee was a key player there, and the White House did have to lean on him pretty hard to get him to go along with the renewal of the Patriot Act.

I think two things are different here. This bill is just much bigger, and affects much--many more people. It's a bigger deal, if you will. And also, in the intervening months and weeks the President's political strength at the Capitol has gone down instead of up.

CONAN: You can also see how, even proponents of this deal say, well, this is the best deal we could get through. But trying to figure out who was here within the last two years, within the last five years, all these different categories, who has to go home temporarily, who has to go home to get to the end of the line, why anybody would want to do that. A lot of people are going to say this is unworkable.

Mr. BABINGTON: Absolutely right. And it may be unworkable. It's probably, at best it would be a bureaucratic mess, you know, very, very difficult. You're right, you're trying to document, you know, times that undocumented people came over. You know, these are people who they keep saying they live in the shadows. Well, by that nature they tend not to have the sort of records and documents that a citizen might have to show, well look here, I lived at this house this long. I've paid taxes this long, that sort of thing.

And yet, every other approach that has been kicked around here also ran against the accusation that it's just not feasible. You know, to begin with, the notion that many, many of the illegal immigrants would be sent back to their original country, sort of the House approach, the criticism there was, you know, that's really just not possible in this day and age.

CONAN: Nevertheless, there are people in the Senate talking as if they can get this done by the time their scheduled to leave town.

Mr. BABINGTON: Yes. I'm not sure they can get it, you know, final passage, the Congress is scheduled to go into a two-week recess. But maybe, you know, usually they're out of here by Thursday nights, most weeks, but maybe, you're right, they might just stay late on Friday and possibly even into Saturday, which is very rare for Congress, to get it done. Because the leadership does want to have this behind them before they go into this two-week break.

CONAN: Charles Babington, thanks very much.

Mr. BABINGTON: Thank you Neal.

CONAN: Charles Babington, Congressional reporter for the Washington Post, and he joined us by phone from Capitol Hill.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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