WASHINGTON, Apr 6 (Reuters) Senators searched for a compromise to break an impasse over an immigration overhaul that could give millions of illegal immigrants a path to citizenship as President George W. Bush urged legislation including a guest-worker program.
Backers of bipartisan legislation being debated in the Senate said they hoped to break the deadlock before a procedural vote to limit debate that is set for Thursday morning. Sen. Richard Durbin, an Illinois Democrat who backs the bill, said failure to reach compromise could doom the legislation.
''They are struggling to find some unity in their caucus and they haven't yet,'' Durbin said of the Republicans.
The issue deeply divides the Republican majority and lawmakers were negotiating a possible compromise about the country's estimated 11 million illegal immigrants. Those who have been in the country less than five years would face steeper hurdles to citizenship than those who have been in the country longer.
At the same time, in an unusually emotional exchange, Republicans blasted Democrats for blocking votes on amendments and said they would unite against the Democratic bid to end the debate.
Democrats said they were trying to protect the bipartisan bill passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee against Republican measures that would gut it.
''I haven't seen an issue in recent years that has so much emotion associated with it,'' said Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican. McCain is a principal author of the bipartisan legislation but said he would follow Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and fellow Republicans and vote against limiting debate.
''Twelve million people are living in the shadows, and I would argue that today our Democrat colleagues are living in the shadows,'' Frist, a Tennessee Republican, said.
''It's in the eyes of the beholder who's stonewalling it,'' said Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada. ''I think we have a real bipartisan opportunity to fix our immigration system thanks to the hard work of the Democrats and the Republicans on the Judiciary Committee.
'VITAL DEBATE' Earlier yesterday, Bush urged lawmakers to reach agreement on a bill that included his proposed temporary worker program.
''This is a vital debate,'' Bush said after a White House meeting with Republican congressional leaders. ''I strongly urge them to come to a conclusion as quickly as possible and pass a comprehensive bill.'' Bush said the bill must include a guest-worker program, saying it was not amnesty but would ''enable us to more secure the border, will recognize that there are people here working hard for jobs Americans won't do.'' He opposed an amnesty that provides automatic citizenship.
The Judiciary Committee bill would give illegal immigrants a chance to earn US citizenship. They would have to pay a fine, pay their taxes, show good character and learn English.
Backers said it would take about 11 years to gain citizenship, but they would be legal residents during that time.
Any Senate bill would have to be worked out with a tough border security and enforcement bill passed by the House of Representatives last December. That bill has sparked nationwide protests by Hispanic groups and their supporters. It defines illegal presence in the country as a felony, instead of a civil offense, and calls for the construction of a fence along the US border with Mexico.
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