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Immigration Talks Accelerate

Eyeing a window of only five months, House and Senate lawmakers will put a heavy emphasis on bipartisanship as Congress moves to complete a comprehensive immigration reform package before the August recess.

As the Senate looks to debate a bill before Memorial Day, four key Senators met Tuesday afternoon to try to advance bipartisan efforts.

Republican Sens. Mel Martinez (Fla.) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.) were set to huddle with leading Democratic Sens. Edward Kennedy (Mass.) and Ken Salazar (Colo.) to discuss their respective parties’ attempts to craft a workable bill this year.

Martinez and Kennedy, speaking in advance of their sit-down, said they believe Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) goal for Senate consideration of a bill is attainable, although they are not there yet.

“A lot of good work has been done,” Martinez said. “We believe we have the framework of a bill with good Republican consensus.”

Martinez has been part of a small group of GOP Senators who have been meeting in recent weeks to try to come up with legislation that meets the test of all factions in their party. The White House has been a key player in the talks, as it looks to usher in a comprehensive reform measure before the end of President Bush’s second term.

“The White House has been very helpful,” Graham said, arguing that despite early indications that immigration reform would fail this year there are signs of hope yet.

“Last year was about staking out what you wouldn’t do” on immigration, while lawmakers now are aggressively working to find bipartisan common ground this session, Graham said.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) agreed, saying that he is “more hopeful than anytime in the recent past” that a comprehensive reform bill could pass.

Like Graham, Cornyn credits the White House’s newfound interest in working with Congress on the issue as a major driver in the recent progress. The White House has committed Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff “to a lot of hard working sessions” with lawmakers, which have helped push the issue forward, Cornyn said.

In fact, those Bush administration officials met the previous week with House lawmakers, including Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), who is the co-author with Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) of an immigration proposal introduced last week, as well as with Democratic Reps. Xavier Becerra (Calif.), Howard Berman (Calif.) and Zoe Lofgren (Calif.), who is the chairwoman of the Judiciary subcommittee on immigration, citizenship, refugees, border security and international laws.

While Gutierrez declined to discuss the strategy session in detail, describing it only as “a very productive, very useful meeting,” he asserted that the House majority and the White House are “both headed in the direction of comprehensive immigration reform.”

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) indicated Tuesday that he continues to expect the Senate to complete its proposal first, although he did not rule out the possibility that the House could move on its own, in the event of delays across the Capitol.

“We still hope the Senate will go first on that,” Hoyer said, citing the Senate’s efforts on a similar measure in the 109th Congress. “We are hopeful they can do that again. If they can, fine. If they can’t, we’re not going to not proceed simply because the Senate doesn’t proceed.”

The immigration measure is expected to reach the House floor in July, Hoyer said, after it moves through committee in June.

But a Senate GOP leadership aide cautioned that substantial work still is needed before a final deal can be brokered that would garner broad Republican support in that chamber, and said that Reid’s decision to bring the bill to the floor prior to the Memorial Day Recess will make it difficult.

“We’re not there yet,” this Republican cautioned.

Nevertheless, Martinez said he has every reason to believe immigration reform can be passed this year, and that ultimately, the House and Senate can come together to get a bill to the president. Senators similarly anticipate moving forward with a bill in advance of the House, he said.

Kennedy said he also believes the Senate is “moving along” and that similar to the Republicans, the Democrats are pressing ahead to craft an acceptable bill in the coming weeks. Asked whether the Senate and House ultimately will come together on a consensus, Kennedy responded: “We’re going to try.”

“I’m hopeful,” Kennedy said. “I think we are making progress.”

On Friday, Lofgren’s subcommittee will hold the first House hearing on immigration, at Ellis Island in New York.

“If we want something done, it has to be done this calendar year,” Lofgren said, although she noted the hearing will not focus specifically on immigration reform legislation introduced in the House last week.

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said this week that any immigration measure in the House must garner significant Republican support to secure its passage — “We’re certainly not going to have all the Democrats,” he said — and expects Bush to contribute to those efforts.

“The president is going to have to use whatever capital he has left,” Van Hollen said.

But lawmakers also will reach out to the White House, with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, whose membership is solely Democratic, expected to seek a meeting with Bush following the April recess. One lawmaker suggested that meeting also could include the Congressional Hispanic Conference, which is made up of Republican lawmakers.

“We need them,” Gutierrez said of his Republican colleagues. “We can’t possibly pass the bill without them. … One vote short is one vote short.”

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has raised the issue in several meetings with the president in recent months, and has suggested the Gutierrez-Flake measure would provide an “excellent framework” for future discussions.

But Republican lawmakers have not overlooked the potential for increased leverage over the measure’s contents, according to an aide to House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio). “We hold even more of the cards this year,” said spokesman Brian Kennedy.

“Republicans will support an immigration bill that secures the border first and foremost, and does not grant amnesty to illegals,” the spokesman said.

John Stanton contributed to this report.

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