Call it a "deadlock" or simply "ongoing negotiation behind the scenes." Perhaps a super-serious Senatorial gut check. Where we'll be this weekend on the immigration debate is literally anybody's guess. We will know more Thursday at 10:30 a.m. when we see if Senate Democrats have the 60 votes they need to invoke cloture on immigration reform and thereby end debate on the issue and force it to a vote.
But as of now, the two weeks that Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., set aside for the Senate to debate and vote on an immigration bill - whether it be comprehensive or piecemeal -- are almost up. And senators have so far not voted on any substantial amendments to the comprehensive immigration reform proposal that made it out of the judiciary committee and is now on the Senate floor.
Democrats are seeking a cloture vote in order to keep their rivals across the aisle from amending the bill to make it tougher on illegal immigrants. If they fail, debate continues and what will happen to the bill is anyone's guess. New restrictions could be added or it may simply be put on hold indefinitely.
The prickly issues holding up a comprehensive immigration reform bill remain two-fold.
1. How extensive should a guest worker program be? The bill on the floor provides for 400,000 guest workers. Many Republicans (and some Democrats, particularly organized labor) say that's too many.
2. How to deal with the 11 million undocumented workers already in the United States. The bill on the floor gives them a path to citizenship with or without returning to their home country first. There are many proposals for restricting this floating around -- like forcing people who have been here for five years or less to return home or to a "U.S. port of entry."
Democrats are not allowing votes on pending amendments they say will harm the underlying Judiciary Committee bill. They also continue to say the approach on the floor is already a compromise, and no further compromise is necessary. Republicans are insisting on offering amendments that would make the bill less forgiving to undocumented immigrants -- amendments that were already voted down in judiciary committee.
Most at issue is an amendment offered by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., who want to amend the Specter bill to disqualify workers who had already been deported, but returned again. Democrats say that's a red herring and the amendment would actually disqualify 95 percent of the 11 million undocumented workers.
Cornyn and Kyl's bill that would have required illegal immigrants to return to their native country was voted down in committee.
Interestingly, the dealmaker in this may end up being the former transportation secretary, Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., who is one of three Hispanics in the Senate. He is also the Senate's only immigrant, having come to the United States from Cuba as a teenager. Martinez and Sen Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., are shuttling primarily among Republicans, but also between Democrats like Sen. Barak Obama and Sen. Ted Kennedy, in an effort to nail down a compromise that will save immigration reform.
Late Wednesday, Senate Republicans outlined a revised immigration legislation that would provide a path for many illegal immigrants to obtain legal status and eventual citizenship. Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., promised to review the plan, but Democrats have rejected similar proposals before.