Senate promises action on immigration reform

President Bush and Senate leaders on Tuesday redoubled their efforts on immigration reform, one day after a nationwide boycott riveted political attention to the cause.

Although major differences remain, Republicans and Democrats alike began showing some signs of give-and-take. Bush convened a special afternoon meeting with GOP leaders to discuss the next steps, while Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid softened a position that had stymied lawmakers several weeks ago.

“Few other issues are as important, and no other issue is as ripe for Senate debate,” Reid said Tuesday morning. “Surely we can pass a good comprehensive immigration bill before the Memorial Day recess.”

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, too, has indicated the Senate can resume immigration debate before the end of the month. The nationwide boycott did not spur this action, but it did help keep lawmakers focused.

“I think to the extent that it keeps them on their toes, it’s a good thing,” Angelo Amador, director of immigration policy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said of the demonstrations Tuesday. “It certainly helps, so long as they continue being peaceful.”

But the boycott and demonstrations may have also caused some political damage. On Capitol Hill, comprehensive reform supporter Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., said Tuesday that Monday’s activities were “having an extremely negative effect” on his efforts to find compromise with fellow conservatives.

“The protests have not been helpful,” Nunes said. “The American people don’t want that kind of behavior.”

The House has already passed a border security bill. As GOP leader, Frist controls the Senate floor schedule and can, in theory, bring up immigration whenever he wants. However, he must also juggle the competing demands of a fractious, 55-member Republican caucus as well as his own presidential ambitions.

“This bill is not fixable,” Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama said Tuesday. “I don’t think it’s likely that we will be able to create a good bill by Memorial Day. We’d do better to slow down. We really would do better if we backed off and had some real hearings.”

Sessions has been among the most vocal opponents of the “comprehensive” approach favored by many Democrats and some key Republicans, including the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. While Sessions and other conservatives support a strict border enforcement plan, Specter and the champions of a comprehensive approach hope to include a guest worker and legalization component.

Amador noted that another supporter of comprehensive reform, Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, has now collected more than a dozen GOP signatures on a letter urging Senate negotiators to hold firm when confronting House border-security hardliners.

Walking a fine line, Frist said on CBS’s “The Early Show” Tuesday that he wants the Senate within the next two weeks to resume debate on “border security first and foremost,” but he also wants the Senate to deal in a “fair and compassionate way” with the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants.

Reid, who praised Monday’s “peaceful, dignified rallies,” extended a hand to Republicans on Tuesday by agreeing to consider more amendments to the underlying immigration bill.

Debate collapsed two weeks ago, after Reid and his fellow Democrats used the Senate’s parliamentary rules to insist that only three amendments be considered for the immigration bill. At the time, the Democrats said they were trying to prevent GOP delaying tactics, which included dozens of amendments proposed by opponents like Sessions. Republicans responded that Reid simply wanted to let the issue linger for a few more weeks.

On Tuesday, though, Reid said Democrats were willing to let each party propose 10 amendments. That could add up to 40 separate votes, because of how amendments can in turn be amended.

“I am willing to have that many votes if that is what it takes to move this legislation forward,” Reid said. “But this bill will take many days to finish.”

White House officials summoned agriculture and business leaders last week for a strategy meeting on immigration, and summoned Frist and House Republican leaders to a special meeting Tuesday afternoon. Even so, a lot will depend on what happens when House and Senate negotiators go to a conference, which is bound to be difficult.

“This is an issue that’s going to take some time to work through the details,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Tuesday, “but we’re hopeful that it can get to conference … and get a comprehensive piece of legislation passed.”