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In this June 19, 2013, photo, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, greets supporters after addressing thousands of tea party activists at the U.S. Capitol railing against the Internal Revenue Service, illegal immigration, and the Obama administration, in Washington. After secretive talks, key senators expressed optimism Wednesday night that they were closing in on a bipartisan agreement to toughen the border security requirements in immigration legislation that also offers a path to citizenship to millions living in the country illegally. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Senators closing in on border security compromise
First Published Jun 20 2013 08:52 am • Last Updated Jun 20 2013 10:04 am

WASHINGTON • White House-backed immigration legislation gained momentum in the Senate on Thursday as lawmakers closed in on a bipartisan compromise to spend tens of billions of dollars stiffening the bill’s border security requirements without delaying legalization for millions living in the country unlawfully.

"Once the Senate adopts our amendment, I will be proud to vote for a bill that secures our border and respects our heritage as an immigrant nation," Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., said in a statement. Additional GOP support was expected as a result of measures that backers dubbed a "border surge."

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Under the emerging compromise, the government would grant legal status to immigrants living in the United States illegally at the same time the additional security was being put into place. Green cards, which signify permanent residency status, would be withheld until the security steps were complete.

Officials said the plan envisions doubling the size of the Border Patrol with 20,000 new agents, completing 700 miles of new fencing along the border with Mexico and purchasing new surveillance drones to track would-be illegal border crossers. The cost of the additional agents alone was put at $30 billion over a decade.

In addition, immigrants would not be able to claim credit for Social Security taxes they paid while working without lawful status. Credits are used to determine the amount in Social Security benefits a worker receives after retirement.

Under another change, neither the administration nor states would be permitted to grant welfare benefits for five years to immigrants currently living unlawfully in the United States

There was no immediate reaction from the White House to terms hashed out by senators in both parties, although Democrats kept administration officials apprised of the talks.

The agreement began to take shape over the past several days beginning with a series of meetings involving Republicans who were uncommitted on the legislation but receptive to supporting it after changes were made. Eventually, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., both authors of the bill, joined the talks.

If agreed to, the changes could clear the way for a strong bipartisan vote within a few days to pass the measure that sits atop President Barack Obama’s second-term domestic agenda.

The officials who described the emerging deal spoke on the condition of anonymity because the talks were private.


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The developments came as Democrats who met with House Speaker John Boehner on Wednesday quoted him as saying he expected the House to pass its own version of an immigration bill this summer and Congress to have a final compromise by year’s end.

Boehner, R-Ohio, already has said the legislation that goes to the House in the next month or two will not include a pathway to citizenship for immigrants in the United States illegally.

The potential compromise in the Senate came into focus Wednesday, one day after the Congressional Budget Office jolted lawmakers with an estimate saying that as drafted, the legislation would fail to prevent a steady increase in the future in the number of residents living in the United States illegally.

The estimate appeared to give added credibility to Republicans who have been pressing Democrats to toughen the border security provisions already written into the bill.

"Our whole effort has been to build a bipartisan group that will support the bill," said Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., who’s helped develop the deal along with Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn. "That’s what this is all about, and it’s focused on border security."

Schumer and Menendez met at midday Wednesday with Graham, Hoeven, Corker and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. The Democrats, Graham and McCain are part of the so-called Gang of Eight.

It was unclear which other portions of the Senate legislation might be changed. There is pressure from some Republicans to make sure no federal benefits go to immigrants who are in the country illegally, at least until they become citizens.

The underlying legislation already envisions more border agents; additional fencing along the U.S-Mexico border; surveillance drones; a requirement for employers to verify the legal status of potential workers; and a biometric system to track foreigners who enter and leave the United States at air and seaports and by land.

Schumer said discussions with Republicans "have been really productive."

"We’ve made a lot of progress in the last 24 hours. Now we have some vetting to do with our respective allies," he said.

If ratified, the compromise would mark concessions on both sides.

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