Majority leader Harry Reid has set a deadline for next week to come to an agreement.
With a deadline looming next week, senators locked in intense, secret negotiations over how to overhaul America's broken immigration system say they are closing in on a "grand bargain."
Those involved in the negotiations say the proposal would include border security and tougher sanctions against employers who hire illegal workers, along with a path to legal status – but not necessarily citizenship – for the millions now in the US illegally.
But this is a window that may close. If the deal – and the all-important wording of the legislation– is not settled in time for a key Senate vote on Tuesday, then lawmakers on both sides of the aisle say immigration reform may be off the agenda until after the 2008 elections.
Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) has set the deadline with the intent of squeezing out an agreement. Republicans, including key negotiators, say that the furious pace could force senators to vote for a plan before they understand its details.
"This is the best chance the country has to repair a broken immigration system," says Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina, who is urging Reid to give the bipartisan group time to complete its work. "If this moment passes, I don't know when we do it."
Meanwhile, conservative Republicans in both chambers are "drawing a line in the sand" over what they see as the most controversial element of the emerging deal: "amnesty," or special privileges, for those who entered the US illegally.
"We are here today to send a signal to the Senate leadership ... that if they do put forward their amnesty plan, then we will call it for what it is. And that is amnesty," said Rep. Lamar Smith (R) of Texas.
The negotiators keep working