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Senate nearing OK of immigration bill


WASHINGTON -- After days of emotional, sometimes stinging debate on immigration policy, it appears all but certain that the Senate will pass a bill next week with the kind of broad changes backed by President Bush.

The final fate of the legislation might not be determined for months, but the Senate's progress in its debate has heartened those who favor a sweeping approach to rewriting immigration laws.

The key to the likely passage of the Senate bill has been a bipartisan alliance that has thwarted efforts to limit or kill the legislation's guest worker measure and its legalization provisions for undocumented immigrants.

Within that group, a core of moderate Republicans has backed measures to toughen the legislation. Those steps, they hope, will make the Senate's approach more palatable to House GOP leaders, who advocate bolstering enforcement of current immigration laws and improving border security before considering other measures.

The Senate approved an amendment Wednesday that would add 370 miles of fences and 500 miles of vehicle barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border. In a nod to those who stress the need for cultural assimilation by immigrants, the chamber passed a measure Thursday declaring English the national language of the United States.

Those steps are aimed at increasing the chances that some form of the legalization and guest worker provisions would survive negotiations over a final bill between the Senate and the House, which passed an enforcement-only immigration measure in December.

House conservatives have indicated their disappointment with the Senate's efforts, and some Senate conservatives say the changes their chamber has made in its bill might make little difference.

Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican who strongly opposes the guest worker program and the legalization measures in the Senate bill, predicted that "ultimately, this bill will be written in conference committee."

That could result in a measure that more closely resembles the House version. For now, however, backers of broad reform are optimistic.

"It was an incredibly successful week for our comprehensive solution to immigration," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican. "We have huge momentum for keeping the comprehensive nature of the bill intact."

Graham pointed to a 66-33 vote against an amendment to strip legalization provisions from the bill.

"If you want a look at a final passage vote, that number is your best predictor," Graham said. "We've got a long way to go, but the really tough votes are behind us. I'm really pleased."

The tough votes Graham referred to included the defeat of an amendment that would have required the Department of Homeland Security to certify that the U.S. borders were secure before guest worker or legalization programs could begin. The proposal would have essentially given the Senate bill the same focus on enforcement that marks the House bill.

"I think our coalition worked effectively together," said Sen. Ken Salazar, a Colorado Democrat.

Democrats in the alliance pushing the bill also include Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois.

Republicans in the group include Graham and Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, Mel Martinez of Florida, Mike DeWine of Ohio, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Sam Brownback of Kansas.

Those senators and about 10 others from both parties convene "every morning, every day at lunch and every night. Without these meetings, this would not be happening," Graham said.

"We've created quite a bond among ourselves that transcends partisan politics."

Nicole Gaouette writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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