The U.S. Senate Tuesday begins debate on immigration reform, an issue that divides majority Republicans and one that could have an impact on midterm congressional elections later this year.
Hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside the U.S. Capitol on the eve of the debate to urge the Senate not to follow the lead of the House of Representatives, which has passed legislation that would make living in the United States without proper documents a felony, and calls for the construction of a fence along part of the U.S. border with Mexico.
The rally was one of several around the country in recent days, some of which have attracted hundreds of thousands of demonstrators.
It appears the protesters' message got through to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which late Monday sent to the full Senate a bill very different than that passed by the House - setting the stage for a brutal battle on immigration reform.
The Senate bill has many of the provisions favored by President Bush, including a guest worker program and an opportunity for millions of illegal immigrants to earn citizenship.
Specifically, the bill would create a temporary worker program that would offer a path to permanent residence and eventual citizenship. It would provide about 400,000 temporary worker visas each year.
But Republicans are divided over the proposal. Senator John Cornyn of Texas argues the plan rewards immigrants who come to the United States illegally:
"I have a concern this is going to be interpreted by my constituents and others as an amnesty provision," said John Cornyn.
Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, argues otherwise:
"I believe we have a bill that is not justifiably categorized as amnesty," said Arlen Specter.
Senator Patrick Leahy, the top Democrat on the committee agrees, saying undocumented workers already in the United States would not get to the front of the line of those waiting for U.S. citizenship.
"They are going to need to pay fines, pay taxes and work hard, wait in line for green cards, earn their way to a path of justice and status and citizenship," said Patrick Leahy.
The issue is a particularly difficult one for Republicans this congressional election year, as they must decide whether to appeal to members of their party's conservative base, who are eager to stem the flow of illegal immigration, and the increasingly influential Hispanic vote.
Chairman Specter predicts heated debate on the bill:
"It is expected that there will be considerable controversy when the bill reaches the Senate floor," he said. "That is to be expected on a matter as charged and controversial as this bill."
Some senators underscored the national security implications of immigration reform. Among them was Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who had planned to introduce his own bill focusing on border security if the Senate Judiciary Committee had not acted:
"A nation that can't secure its borders can't secure its destiny or administer its laws," said Bill Frist. "And the situation along our southern border now ranks as a national security challenge second only to the war on terror."
The Senate bill does call for strengthening border security by increasing the number of border patrol guards.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat from California, where farming is a key industry, emphasized the economic implications of immigration reform and the critical need for a guest worker program.
"It becomes very clear to virtually all of us that there is one industry in America that is almost entirely dependent on undocumented workers, and that industry is agriculture," noted Dianne Feinstein.
Elsewhere in Washington, at a swearing-in ceremony for 30 new U.S. citizens, President Bush called on lawmakers to complete work on what is one of his top legislative goals for this year:
"Congress needs to pass a comprehensive bill that secures the border, improves interior enforcement, and creates a temporary worker program to strengthen our security and our economy," said President Bush. "Completing a comprehensive bill is not going to be easy.
It is not clear when Congress will finish its work on the legislation. The Senate bill, once approved, will have to be reconciled with the House version, which does not include the guest worker program, before it is sent to President Bush.
Immigration reform is expected to be on the agenda when President Bush meets with the leaders of Mexico and Canada later this week in the Mexican resort town of Cancun.