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Signs Emerge of Thaw Between White House, Opponents of Comprehensive Immigration Bill

With Congressional Republicans and President Bush politically weakened, tentative signs are emerging that the president, who supports comprehensive immigration reform, and Congressional opponents of such a plan may be moving closer to compromise this year, even though the challenges to enacting a consensus bill remain significant.

Behind-the-scenes negotiations on a comprehensive immigration bill hit a fever pitch Tuesday in anticipation of a bipartisan discussion draft that’s being written by aides to Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) with assistance from the White House, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Reps. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.). Few details have leaked about the draft, which is expected to be released in the coming weeks.

In interviews Tuesday, several Republican opponents of last year’s comprehensive reform bill indicated a newfound willingness to consider a proposal beyond a border-security-only approach. Last year, a comprehensive immigration bill sponsored by Kennedy and McCain passed narrowly in the Senate but expired without going to conference. Strong House support for a border-security-only bill effectively scuttled any chance at passing any bipartisan legislation that also would offer guest-worker slots for immigrants or a path to citizenship.

In the meantime, reports from those who have attended meetings between Senators and White House officials suggest that the president, too, may be more open to moving in his opponents’ direction.

Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who was at the Tuesday meeting between Senators and White House representatives, said he was “encouraged” by White House efforts. “Some of the things in the president’s original proposal were not going to happen,” he said, but added, “The fact that we are in the minority as Republicans means we have to be more engaged in the process.”

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who staunchly opposed last year’s comprehensive reform bill, agreed that the White House had made some progress toward hammering out an immigration position he could support.

“We could actually create a system where the employer is treated fairly but illegals would find it very difficult to find work,” Sessions said on Tuesday, describing one idea being floated that he approved of.

In an interview, McCain expressed cautious optimism in describing a “more result-oriented attitude” among key players, Kennedy, the White House, and GOP Sens. John Cornyn (Texas), Jon Kyl (Ariz.) and Johnny Isakson (Ga.). Cornyn and Kyl offered a more hard-line proposal in last year’s debate.

McCain said the new attitude created a “more favorable environment” for a deal, but he added, “I certainly can’t predict.”

However, a Republican aide sounded a note of caution. Noting that securing Republican support for last year’s Senate bill was difficult, the aide said, “A lot of people had to hold their nose and vote for that one” — yet Republicans now in the minority, hesitant Senators can no longer assume that House Republican negotiators will be able to toughen the bill in conference.

“That could make it difficult for them,” the aide said.

Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho), who has long supported provisions to allow immigrants to take agricultural jobs, said that this year’s proposal has involved a lot of “talk, but I’ve not seen a proposal for scheduling events, activities, markups — the kind of things it takes to get a bill to the floor.”

Kennedy, for his part, told reporters that if it came to it, “we can go back to the bill we passed last year.”

But a Democratic aide expressed some optimism that consensus could emerge before a markup.

One impetus for action may be a growing concern that further delay will be harmful. Asked to predict whether comprehensive immigration reform would happen in 2007, Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) said, “I think it better happen in 2007.”

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