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Congress Grapples Anew With Immigration

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

As President Bush gets ready to address the nation on immigration this evening, the Senate is taking up the issue again. An overhaul of immigration policies stalled more than a month ago, bogged down in partisan fights over procedure. The bill that's now being considered is a compromise designed to bring in more conservative support, but it will likely see some changes before it's put to a final vote.

NPR's David Welna has details from the Capitol.

DAVID WELNA reporting:

As he revived on the Senate floor what just a month ago looked like a dying immigration bill, Majority Leader Bill Frist argued it's probably been for the better that the Senate held off acting sooner on that legislation.

Senator BILL FRIST (Republican, Tennessee): I think everybody has spent a lot more time with the bill and with the proposed amendments. Thus, I think we should be able to address the issue in a careful, deliberate way, complete way, and finish this bill before Memorial Day. It's an important bill. It's an important bill to our national security, it's an important bill to our values, to our economy and to our safety.

WELNA: Minority Leader Harry Reid said he agreed with Frist that the aim is to have a dignified debate in the Senate on immigration. He used an extended Hollywood metaphor to describe the task ahead:

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada): Today marks the beginning of Immigration, Part II. Scene I will close tonight with the president's speech, leaving many more scenes to play in the Senate. But the president must be a player, an actor, not a spectator, in all the process of this debate, not just the first act.

WELNA: But in the first act tonight, Reid said the president will have to explain why he's only added 1,500 Border Patrol agents when Congress authorized funds for 2,000 agents. He said the president will have to explain why there's been virtually no legal action taken against those who hire illegal immigrants. And he demanded a better explanation from the president about where he stands.

Senator REID: We need to know what kind of immigration reform he supports. Does he believe, as his Republicans in the House do, that we should build a 700-mile fence on our border? He must make a statement in that regard. Does he believe as the Republican colleagues in the House do that we should make all undocumented immigrants felons?

WELNA: Reid said he cannot support a measure put into a last-minute compromise bill requiring illegal immigrants who've been here more than two years, but less than five, to leave the country in order to acquire legal status here. Judiciary Committee Chair Arlen Specter agreed it's a sticking point.

Senator ARLEN SPECTER (Republican, Pennsylvania): It is a controversial provision. There is a real issue as to whether it accomplishes something which is worthwhile. But in cobbling together and crafting a bill, it has been necessary to put in provisions which are not universally accepted.

WELNA: But Specter also railed against fellow Republicans who dismiss the Senate bill as an amnesty.

Senator SPECTER: This is not amnesty, because amnesty means a pardon of those who have broken the law. That is not the case here.

WELNA: Texas Republican John Cornyn replied that the bill has been described as an amnesty because it allows those who entered illegally to get in line for citizenship.

Senator JOHN CORNYN (Republican, Texas): Now there's something, it seems to me, fundamentally unfair about line jumping, about breaking in line. And many have expressed concerns and I am one of those that had the concerns about rewarding people for line jumping.

WELNA: As for reports that the president will deploy some 5,000 National Guard troops to the border, Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy warned that the Guard is already overworked.

Senator PATRICK LEAHY (Democrat, Vermont): Now, I do believe as long as these Guard units operate under the authority of state governors, then I believe this action is appropriate. In addition, the federal government should pick up the full cost of such a deployment and be clear about the length of the service.

WELNA: Leahy warned, though, that the southern border from now on will be considered militarized.

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

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David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.