Washington - The Senate begins debate on an immigration bill today and a leading Republican says the debate may tie up the chamber for a while.
"It's got to go on for at least a couple of weeks to give everybody the opportunity in the Senate to feel like they've had their chance to offer amendments that they think would improve the bill," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Sunday.
The bill would offer legal status to most of the nation's 12 million illegal immigrants while also toughening border security.
Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy, the lead Democratic negotiator, said the bill would create "a tough but fair path to citizenship" for millions of immigrants.
"The bill isn't exactly the way I would have written it, but it is a strong compromise and the best chance we will have to finally fix this broken system," he said. "The price of inaction is too high."
The White House is betting on action. Two Cabinet secretaries on Sunday promoted the White House's immigration deal with Congress and played down criticism it would reward people who illegally have entered the country.
"It's not amnesty. They're going to have to pay a penalty. They're going to have to wait in line. They're going to have to undergo a criminal background check," Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez said.
Illegal immigrants could seek a "Z visa" and get on track toward permanent residency after paying fees and fines. Heads of households would have to return to their home countries first.
Guest workers would have to return to their home country after periods of two years. They could renew their visas twice, but would be required to leave for a year in between each time.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said the aim was to prevent people from being able to "jump the line" to get a green card.
"Everybody who has been on line waiting patiently gets ahead of them," he said. "They have to pay a penalty, similar to what you pay if you commit a misdemeanor, which is what this is under the existing state of the law."
Prospects of such a plan in the House are uncertain.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is not happy with how the compromise would treat families. It would impose tighter rules for green card eligibility for some relatives of U.S. citizens and permanent residents.
"We should try to fashion something that recognizes the reality of life," she said in an interview broadcast Sunday.
Chertoff and Gutierrez appeared on "Late Edition" on CNN. Pelosi and McConnell were on "This Week" on ABC.
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