WASHINGTON - Side by side, leading Democratic and Republican senators pledged Monday to propel far-reaching immigration legislation through the Senate by summer, providing a possible path to citizenship for an estimated 11 million people now in the U.S. illegally.
The senators acknowledged pitfalls that have doomed such efforts in the past, but they suggested that November's elections - with Hispanics voting heavily for President Obama and other Democrats - could make this time different.
Passage of the emotionally charged legislation by the Democrat-controlled Senate is far from assured, and a taller hurdle could come later in the House, which is dominated by conservative Republicans who've shown little interest in immigration overhaul.
Obama will lay out his own proposals today, most of which mirror the Senate plans.
Besides the citizenship provision, including new qualifications, the Senate measure would increase border security, allow more temporary workers to stay and crack down on employers who would hire illegal immigrants. The plans are still short on detail, and all the senators conceded that months of tedious and politically treacherous negotiations lie ahead.
But with a re-elected Obama pledging his commitment, the lawmakers argued that six years after the last sustained congressional effort at an immigration overhaul came up short in the Senate, chances for approval this year are much better.
"Other bipartisan groups of senators have stood in the same spot before, trumpeting similar proposals," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. "But we believe this will be the year Congress finally gets it done. The politics on this issue have been turned upside down," Schumer said, arguing that polls show more support than ever for immigration changes and political risk in opposing it.
"Elections. Elections," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. "The Republican Party is losing the support of our Hispanic citizens. And we realize that there are many issues on which we think we are in agreement with our Hispanic citizens, but this is a pre-eminent issue with those citizens."
Obama got 71 percent of the Latino vote in November compared with 27 percent for Republican Mitt Romney.
The president will endorse the Senate process during an event in Las Vegas today, administration officials said. He will outline a similar vision for overhauling the nation's immigration laws, drawing on the immigration "blueprint" he first released in 2011.
The blueprint focuses on four key areas: a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S., improved border security, an overhaul of the legal immigration system and making it easier for businesses to verify the legal status of workers.
Like the president's blueprint, the Senate proposals also call for a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants already here. But lawmakers want the creation of that pathway to be contingent upon securing the border and better tracking of people in the U.S. on visas.
The Senate's five-page framework also calls for overhauling the legal immigration system, including awarding green cards to immigrants who obtain certain advanced degrees from American universities, creating an effective high-tech employment verification system to ensure that employers do not hire illegal immigrants in the future and allowing more low-skill and agricultural workers.
Besides McCain and Schumer, the senators endorsing the new principles Monday were Democrats Dick Durbin of Illinois, Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Michael Bennet of Colorado and Republicans Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Marco Rubio of Florida and Jeff Flake of Arizona.
Several of them have worked for years on the issue. McCain collaborated with the late Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy on the comprehensive immigration legislation pushed by then-President George W. Bush that failed in 2007.
Outside groups including Latino advocacy organizations, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and organized labor were quick to praise the emerging framework. But some also sounded notes of caution.
Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, questioned a proposal by the Senate group to require illegal immigrants to provide proof of employment before they can gain legal status. Trumka said it could exclude millions of workers "who cannot prove employment because they have been forced to work off the clock or have no employer by virtue of being independent contractors."
Deepak Bhargava, executive director of the Center for Community Change, questioned the process being set out for the path to citizenship.
"If the details are not done correctly, the path to citizenship can take far longer than it is reasonable. There is real concern about those details," he said.
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