As Congress headed back Monday from a two-week recess, President George W. Bush was in the country's most immigrant-rich state to push a stalled bill that would allow more foreigners to work legally in the United States.
Lawmakers, with an eye on Election Day in just over six months, remain far apart on whether to crack down on illegal immigrants or embrace them as vital contributors to the U.S. economy.
Bush wants a law that would give temporary guest worker permits to foreigners in low-paying jobs while strengthening border security. He was pushing his idea in a speech Monday in Irvine, in California, a state that has seen massive protests in recent weeks calling for immigrant rights.
Senator Arlen Specter, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Sunday he believes Congress will be able to work out differences and pass a bill. Specter, a Republican, has pledged to have legislation ready for debate soon after lawmakers return.
Specter said Democrats and Republicans have to agree on a list of amendments to consider. And he acknowledged that even if senators pass a bill with a guest worker program, it will be tough to work that out with House members who passed a much tougher bill that would impose criminal penalties on those who try to sneak into this country and would build up fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border.
''It would be a tough conference, candidly, with the House, but we were able to work through the Patriot Act although there were big disagreements,'' Specter said on CNN's ''Late Edition.'' The Patriot Act is a grouping of controversial anti-terrorism laws that critics say violate privacy rights. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Republican, intends to seek passage of immigration legislation by the end of May by reviving the Senate bill that stalled earlier this month due to internal disputes in both parties as well as political maneuvering.
In a gesture to conservative critics of the measure, Republican leadership aides said last week that Frist also will seek roughly $2 billion (euro1.6 billion) in immediate additional spending for border protection.
Some conservatives have said the Senate bill is unacceptable because provisions allowing for eventual citizenship to some of the illegal immigrants already here amount to amnesty.
Appearing with Specter, Senator Carl Levin, a Democrat, said it is possible the Senate can pass a bill if ''the administration will weigh in and the president will take a leadership role on this.'' ''We need a bipartisan bill. We need a comprehensive bill,'' said Levin, who appeared with Specter on ''Late Edition'' on CNN. ''It's very possible we can get one, providing we address all of the problems, and not just one or two of them, since it's obvious our system is now broken.'' After his immigration speech, Bush was ending a four-day stay in California that also featured speeches on U.S. competitiveness and his energy plan, meetings with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and former President Gerald Ford, as well as plenty of time on his bike.
Bush's massive entourage took an overnight detour to Napa Valley just so he could bike through the picturesque wine country Saturday, and he rode Sunday morning to a peak overlooking Palm Springs.
He planned to stop in Las Vegas on his way home Monday to raise money for Republican Congressman Jon Porter at the Venetian Resort Hotel Casino.