You're going to be hearing a lot about immigration in the next two weeks. That's because the full Senate today starts days of debate on how to handle illegal immigrants in the United States -- some living here for decades -- in this post-9/11 era.
On Monday, the Senate Judiciary Committee advanced a bipartisan immigration bill to the Senate floor that is very different from the measure the House passed on Dec. 16 -- most centrally because it provides a path for an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States to "earn" legal status and eventually citizenship.
The Senate Judiciary panel, on a bipartisan vote and with an assist from Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), is now behind a bill that is humanitarian, pragmatic and politically realistic, everything the House bill is not.
((UPDATE: Durbin spoke on behalf of this measure Tuesday morning on the Senate floor)
That's why it has a chance, unlike the House measure, of being signed by President Bush.
WHAT AMERICANS THINK
59 percent say they oppose allowing illegal immigrants to apply for legal, temporary-worker status, an NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll found.
62 percent say they oppose making it easier for illegal immigrants to become citizens, a Quinnipiac University poll said.
Three-fourths say the United States is not doing enough along its borders to keep illegal immigrants out, a Time magazine poll found.
Senate panel OKs immigration bill
The Senate Judiciary Committee approved legislation Monday that clears the way for 11 million illegal immigrants to seek U.S. citizenship, a victory for protesters who had spilled into the streets by the hundreds of thousands demanding better treatment for immigrants.
Illinois bishops back legal status
Illinois' leading Catholic bishops want a bill that allows for illegal immigrants to move toward legal status.
Sweet: Senate's legislation has a chance
You're going to be hearing a lot about immigration in the next two weeks.
• President calls for guest worker program
• McClellan: 'A pressing legislative priority'
• Bush: Immigration is 'an emotional topic'
O'Sullivan: Does bill cross the line?
The U.S. Senate has begun what is likely to be a long debate on immigration reform.
Chavez-Thompson: Real path to citizenship
They are Mexican immigrants tending Highwood's manicured lawns. They are Indian computer programmers working for major corporations.
But readers, please note that there are many, many steps ahead before any legislation goes to Bush's desk.
"We've got a long ways to go," Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) told me.
Successful day for Durbin
Durbin had a banner day on the committee, winning approval of three amendments that served to make the measure less punitive.
Durbin was able to purge from the bill the committee is advancing a provision that would have criminalized all sorts of offenses associated with illegal immigration that at present are NOT punished with jail time. Another Durbin amendment was aimed at making sure that aid workers would not be open to felony prosecution if they helped illegal immigrants in a non-emergency situation.
The committee also adopted a version of Durbin's DREAM Act (Development, Relief and Education of Alien Minors Act), a narrow proposal providing a path to earning citizenship to some students raised in the United States who are in school or the military.
The Judiciary Committee consists of 10 Republicans and 8 Democrats. The members come from the far left and far right wings of their parties. Yet they voted 12-6 in the committee to send a bill to the Senate floor supported by an unusual coalition of business, labor and faith-based interests. There have also been major rallies in the United States -- there was one March 10 in Chicago -- to pressure the Senate not to take up a House-type crackdown bill.
That committee vote indicates that there is much potential for compromise in the internal Senate debate in the days ahead.
It's not clear yet if Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) will use the Judiciary bill as the underlying document to work off or insist on using as the main vehicle legislation that he drafted -- which is much closer to the harsher House provisions. Mixed up in this is Frist's potential 2008 presidential bid; pushing a more stringent immigration bill plays to his conservative base. Other senators also have related immigration legislation pending.
After the Senate votes, a small number of House and Senate members meet to reconcile the two versions of the bill. During this phase, the entire bill can be rewritten. After that, the House and Senate vote again on the melded bill.
At the end of the day, it will come down to this: It will be up to Bush to get GOP votes in the House, if he is ever to get an immigration bill to sign.
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