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Senate Clears Way for Immigration Bill Talks

Nicole Gaouette
LA TIMES

Senate leaders overcame a procedural glitch Thursday that had stalled efforts to revamp immigration laws, paving the way for the chamber to appoint negotiators to work on a joint bill with the House.

The agreement eliminated a problem that had threatened to kill any chance of a final bill by preventing talks from even taking place. Now, negotiators can begin dealing with the major obstacle to an immigration accord — an intense dispute between the House and Senate over the scope of such legislation.

A measure the House passed in December dealt solely with toughening border security and cracking down on the hiring of illegal immigrants. A Senate bill approved in May included similar provisions, but also would create a guest worker program and allow most illegal immigrants to gain legal status in the U.S. — elements opposed by many House Republicans.

The Senate bill would require illegal immigrants eligible for legalization to pay back taxes — a proposal that sparked the procedural quandary. Under the Constitution, only the House can initiate bills that generate federal revenue; if a Senate bill does so, any House member can block it.

Anticipating House action against their bill, Senate leaders for weeks had been unable to find a way around the problem. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) proposed taking a House-passed tax bill pending before the Senate and attaching the chamber's immigration bill to it. But Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) objected, expressing fears that unrelated tax measures also would be added to it.

The deadlock was broken Thursday when Reid announced he had accepted GOP assurances that they would not add anything to the bill.

With that hurdle overcome, the onus for progress on an immigration overhaul rests with House Republicans.

The chamber's GOP leaders have scheduled an unusual series of public hearings across the country in July and August — proceedings designed partly to highlight what conservatives see as flaws in the Senate bill.

The House leaders also have made it clear that intensive, closed-door negotiations on a compromise bill will not begin until the hearings are completed.

Capitol Hill observers note that in an election year, Congress typically avoids final action on contentious issues as the November vote nears. But House leaders insist an agreement on an immigration bill remains possible this fall.

Preliminary talks "are going to continue while the House has its hearings," House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said.

Senate Republicans struck an optimistic chord.

"After the House finishes its hearings, we will begin the vital work of crafting a final bill," Frist said.

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