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Senate Hoping to Vote on Immigration Bill this Week


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep, good morning.

The debate over immigration law poses a special problem for one Republican lawmaker. He's the Senate leader who wants a final vote by the end of this week. Last week, opponents of that legislation tried to make the bill tougher, both on border security and on illegal immigrants, and they'll continue this week. That's making for quite a balancing act for majority leader and presidential hopeful Bill Frist, who once said he opposed the bill as amnesty for illegal immigrants.

Here's more from NPR's David Welna.

DAVID WELNA reporting:

Four weeks ago today, Majority Leader Frist told NPR he considered the immigration bill before the Senate an amnesty. At the same time, he expressed hoped the bill could be changed through amendments that fellow conservative Republicans plan to offer.

Senator BILL FRIST (Republican, Tennessee): I would pull back on the amnesty provisions and will support those amendments.

WELNA: And indeed he has. Last week, Frist voted for an amendment that would have required certification that the Mexican border was under control before any other part of the bill could be implemented. He voted to bar any eventual credit for Social Security payments made by illegal immigrants and he voted to prevent guest workers from pursuing U.S. citizenship. Those measures were all defeated. Still, quite apart from his actions, Frist's rhetoric by week's end made him sound like an ardent supporter of the bill.

Sen. FRIST: The more time people spend with it, the more they understand the absolute critical aspect of having a comprehensive bill that address temporary workers, the 12 million people who are in the shadows today who came illegally, as well as a strong border. So I'm very pleased with the process.

WELNA: And would he actually vote for that immigration bill?

Sen. FRIST: It's moving in a direction that - it continues to flow in a direction I would be voting for.

WELNA: Other conservative Republicans who are close allies of President Bush struck similar positive notes. John Cornyn of Texas even got one of his amendments approved. It bars illegal immigrants who've committed a felony from pursuing U.S. citizenship. And under a bill passed by the House, simply being in the country illegally amounts to a felony.

Senator JOHN CORNYN (Republican, Texas): Each of us have perhaps won some and lost some in terms of the amendments that we favored or disfavored. But I think it's been a good week for the Senate, a good week for the cause of securing our borders and restoring public respect for our laws.

WELNA: That's not enough though for other conservatives. Even though Alabama Republican Jeff Sessions got his amendment approved that adds 370 miles of triple-layered fencing to the U.S.-Mexico border, he has no intention of voting for the bill itself.

Senator JEFF SESSIONS (Republican, Alabama): We have a fundamentally flawed piece of legislation on the floor of the Senate. It should never, ever, ever become law.

WELNA: It's not only Republicans expressing qualms about this bill after a week of amendments. Here's the leader of Senate Democrats, Harry Reid.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada): The bill is not as good as it was. I mean, I think there are provisions, amendments that were offered that were mean-spirited. But it's still a piece of legislation that didn't - unless something takes a terrible turn for the worse, it's a bill that I can still vote for.

WELNA: And that's because a coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans has protected the bill's most controversial provision, the one that grants legal status and a path to naturalization to millions of illegal immigrants. Opponents call it amnesty. Supporters call it earned citizenship. All agree that it's the fundamental issue for Congress to decide.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.