'Gang of 12' Mulls Over Immigration Bill

The Associated Press
Thursday, May 24, 2007; 11:58 AM

WASHINGTON -- Just off the Senate floor, a dozen Democratic and Republican senators huddle twice a day to decide whether proposed changes to a bipartisan immigration compromise are acceptable tweaks or fatal blows to their fragile agreement.

Survival of the deal that would allow 12 million unlawful immigrants to stay in the U.S. legally _ regarded as the best chance to overhaul immigration this year _ depends in large part on how effective this "Gang of 12" is in insulating the plan from major changes.

The team grows or shrinks according to what the issues are. At its core are the unlikely partners who cut the deal, led by liberal Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and conservative Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz. Assistance comes from GOP centrist Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Mel Martinez of Florida and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.

They sit in overstuffed crimson leather chairs; Senate aides and senior White House officials look on. The team pores over lists of proposed amendments from both parties. Some are deemed acceptable, while others are deal-breakers that must be killed or modified to avoid alienating a key bloc.

"There is a real commitment to absolutely do our best to see that the agreement is not unraveled," Kyl said. "We're trying to avoid killing the deal."

Added Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo.: "We need to stay true to the principles" underlying the bipartisan deal.

It is a risky strategy on an issue as contentious as immigration. Lawmakers in both parties are eager to express themselves and bristle at accepting a measure developed by a small group of senators in private with the White House.

The measure would toughen border security and institute an employment verification system to bar undocumented workers from getting jobs. It would create a merit-based point system that would evaluate future immigrants and prioritize employment criteria over family ties.

The bill unites conservatives and liberals who regard enactment of an immigration measure this year as an imperative that can deliver political benefits and long-standing policy objectives to their respective parties.

Many lawmakers are suspicious of the group.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., derisively refers to them as "the masters of the universe."

Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., is seeking far-reaching changes to the immigration measure and wants to remove the legalization program for unlawful immigrants.

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