Q&A: Will the Senate Move on Immigration? Congress is back in session this week after a two-week recess. Washington watchers are waiting to see when, how -- and even if -- the Senate will take up the contentious debate over revamping immigration policy. NPR Washington Editor Ron Elving helps explain what to expect.
NPR logo Q&A: Will the Senate Move on Immigration?

Q&A: Will the Senate Move on Immigration?

Immigrant-rights and peace groups demonstrate in front of the U.S. Capitol against immigration bills pending in Congress, April 24, 2006. Mark Wilson/Getty Images hide caption

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Congress is back in session this week after a two-week recess. Washington watchers are waiting to see when, how -- and even if -- the Senate will take up the contentious debate over revamping immigration policy. NPR Washington Editor Ron Elving helps explain what to expect.

In Depth

Read more backgrounders on the debate over U.S. immigration policy:

Before leaving for break, most of the Senate seemed united behind a plan that would tighten border security and provide a path to citizenship for many illegal immigrants. What was in that proposal?

The agreement, which appeared to have the 60 votes to overcome a filibuster, was proposed by two Republican senators, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Mel Martinez of Florida. It provided more money, equipment and people for border security, which is where all these immigration bills begin.

But it also addressed the question: If there are 12 million people in the country now without legal status, how are you going to round them all up and ship them back where they came from? And would it make sense to do so, when they are obviously providing something of value in the economy and want to be part of this society? The Hagel-Martinez idea was to draw lines among the undocumented based on length of residence.

Those here for five years or more would be eligible for a program moving them to legal (green card) status. Those here for more than two years (but less than five) would be eligible to apply for temporary work status, but they would have to leave the country first to do so. And those in the country less than two years would have to go back to their country of origin and get in line with others there who want to come to the United States.

Why did the deal fall through?

The deal was popular because it gave some cover to those senators, primarily Republicans, who don't want to be seen to be supporting outright amnesty. Most Senate Democrats also backed the proposal. But the Senate's core conservatives -- mostly Republicans -- opposed the bill, saying it amounted to "amnesty light" or simply amnesty. Some wanted to have a crack at amending the Hagel-Martinez bill on the floor in the hours before the Senate left for its break. Something in the range of 400 amendments were in the works, and Republicans wanted to consider at least a score of them.

As a practical matter, there wasn't time for the kind of extended amending process that usually occurs in the Senate. As a political matter, the Senate Democratic leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, immediately said that Republicans were trying to kill the compromise and refused to agree to any amendments. He wanted to vote on the Hagel-Martinez bill "as is." That was not acceptable to the majority party, and so they went home with nothing.

President Bush has repeatedly urged the Senate to reach a deal on immigration. How soon is the Senate likely to return to the issue?

The immigration bill is now back before the Judiciary Committee, which is holding a hearing Tuesday and a regular business meeting Thursday. The hearing focuses on the economic effects of a guest-worker program. Thursday's meeting will be significant only if some kind of progress has been made behind the scenes to clear the way for the Hagel-Martinez compromise bill to return to the Senate floor. All reports so far have been that the backroom negotiations during the break were inconclusive.

It is possible that Senate leaders could agree to bring the bill back to floor debate at any time -- if they thought they had a deal for debating and acting upon it. Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter has indicated he's not sure the committee is the place to "save" the legislation at this point.

Does that mean the Senate is backing away from an immigration overhaul?

Not yet. But a really thorough-going and earnest compromise looks increasingly unlikely. The two sides are way too far apart on the core question of dealing with those 12 million illegal immigrants already here. And even if the Senate reaches a compromise, that legislation would still need to be reconciled with a much harsher bill in the House. That bill, which focuses solely on border security, would make felons of those 12 million and criminalize anyone who hires or helps them.

What may be possible is a stripped-down bill that beefs up enforcement at the border and in workplaces around the country, while leaving open the question of what we do with the 12 million who are already here.

Immigration appears to have emerged as one of the key issues in this midterm election year. Can lawmakers afford not to pass legislation?

It's always embarrassing for Congress to admit it can't really handle a problem that this many people care this much about. There will be many people on both sides of the issue who are exasperated by inaction. This could lead some of them to vote against their incumbent this fall, or it could contribute to a decision not to vote. Congress knows this and would rather assert itself than punt.

But in the end, the default is always in favor of no action. It's easier to stop something than to pass it, especially in the Senate. And many members would rather see no bill at all than a bill that offends their key constituents.

Over the past several weeks, millions of people across the country have marched in protest against measures to curb illegal immigration -- measures advocated mostly by Republican lawmakers. Is the GOP likely to see repercussions at the polls?

The GOP finds itself in a classic dilemma on this issue. The party has made strides among Hispanic voters in recent years, and President Bush has built much of his image and success on getting relatively high percentages among Hispanic voters. But many in the Hispanic community have been angered by calls from some Republican lawmakers to make felons of illegal immigrants -- and to rely on a wall from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico.

At the same time, those calling loudest for a crackdown on illegal immigrants come from the GOP's core conservative base, much of which was not only unmoved by the marches but downright alarmed by them.