GOP aides said bipartisan staff talks broke down last week because of a misunderstanding on how Democrats would handle a set of Republican principles. Republican and Democratic senators are scheduled to meet again Tuesday, which could give them the opportunity to settle the dispute and begin drafting legislation.
There is no agreement on core issues such as whether illegal immigrants can earn citizenship without leaving the country or whether family-based immigration should be limited to children and spouses, ending so-called chain migration. But Democratic and Republican aides said the talks continue in good faith.
On Friday, 15 Republican senators wrote to Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to ask for one week to review any immigration legislation before it goes to the floor. The letter was spearheaded by Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina. Signatories included Sens. John Cornyn of Texas, Sam Brownback of Kansas and Jeff Sessions of Alabama, who were involved in the immigration debate last year.
Brownback, the sole signatory who voted for the Senate bill last year, is less involved in the current negotiations. Cornyn has been heavily involved in talks about a bipartisan measure this year, but he is uncertain that he ultimately will support the Senate bill, according to aides.
The administration and supporters of last year's Senate bills are pinning their hopes on Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., although Kyl's involvement is more aligned with the administration's latest proposals and less with a broad bipartisan bill, according to sources.
One GOP aide said the purpose of the DeMint letter is to emphasize "minority rights" in a complicated debate. Last year, even though the immigration bill was on the Senate floor for several weeks, lawmakers were still uncertain what it contained on final passage.
Last year's bill changed dramatically from the committee-passed measure so senators would lift their objections to a floor debate. Republicans are worried that a similar circumstance could occur this year, and their anxiety is heightened by the increasingly likely prospect that the bill will go directly to the floor without committee consideration.
"Even those who are close to the discussions don't know what's shaped up," the aide said.
A Democratic leadership aide declined to comment on whether Reid would make the legislative text available before the floor debate. But, the aide pointed out that both Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez have devoted considerable time to discussing an immigration bill with Republicans and Democrats over the last several months.