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U.S. lawmakers take another stab at immigration changes

Gannett News Service

WASHINGTON – Lawmakers are close to restarting a debate on immigration reform that lasted more than a year in the last Congress without producing a resolution.

In the Senate, Democrat Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and Arizona Republican John McCain are working out details of a new bill that would let millions of illegal immigrants get legal status and allow hundreds of thousands of foreign workers to come to the United States legally.

In the House, Republican Jeff Flake of Arizona and Democrat Luis Gutierrez of Illinois are working on a companion bill that lawmakers could take up once the Senate finishes with the issue later this spring.

Lobbyists expect the bills to be similar to legislation the Senate passed last year.

Aides said the Senate bill could be introduced next week or the week after, and committee debate could begin by late March. Both chambers aim to take up immigration reform in 2007, before election-year politics start to dominate legislative tactics.

“We came close last year,” Kennedy said in a statement prepared Wednesday for a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on immigration reform. The hearing officially kicked off the new focus on the issue. “Hopefully, we can find common ground in coming weeks,” Kennedy’s statement said.

The administration sent two Cabinet members to Capitol Hill on Wednesday to underscore Bush’s support for the reform proposal, which passed the Senate last year but stalled after GOP House leaders refused to take it up.

Immigration reform represents a chance for Bush to claim a major legislative victory, even though Congress is now controlled by Democrats.

“We must have a solution which is workable, one that will not have us back in this room debating this same issue in 10 years,” Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday.

While Democratic leaders in the House and Senate say they support the broad outlines of the reforms the Senate passed last year, lobbyists don’t think legislation can pass without support from at least 20 Republicans in the Senate and 40 in the House.

A coalition of business groups, civil rights organizations and religious leaders support the reform legislation, but keeping potential allies together will require delicate negotiation.

The bill’s chief sponsors also are taking more time to talk to administration officials about how the Department of Homeland Security would initiate sweeping immigration reforms, given that they probably have better prospects for making it through Congress than before.

“This time we realize we’re not shooting with blanks,” Flake said.

One item from last year’s Senate bill that may not make it back into any new proposal: the complicated three-tiered system that would have set different standards for immigrants to get legal status depending on when they came to the United States.

“That three-tier (system) is what was adopted last year,” said Eliseo Medina, executive vice president of the Service Employees International Union, the nation’s fastest-growing labor union. “The political situation is really quite different this year.”

Opponents of last year’s bill plan to try again to defeat it.

“There is an urgent need to secure the border” against drug smugglers and illegal immigrants seeking jobs in the U.S., said Chris Simcox, president of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, a Phoenix-based group that patrols the border.

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