Immigration reform will reach the top of the congressional agenda this week, beginning with the unveiling of sweeping legislation that would provide legal status and a pathway to citizenship for 11 million people who came to the U.S. illegally.
The Senate's bipartisan Gang of Eight and six House lawmakers have been meeting privately for weeks in hopes of striking bipartisan accord on an issue that has divided Congress and the country for the past five years.
"It's time to get it finished and introduced," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a chief Senate negotiator. "You can't let these things continue to drag out."
The House and Senate are working separately, but they talk occasionally, and their plans are similar, though not exactly the same, negotiators told The Washington Examiner.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., is scheduled to hold a hearing Wednesday on the Senate plan, which, aides said, will include legalizing millions of illegal immigrants already living here -- but only after the immigrants pass background checks, pay fines and backtaxes and clear other hurdles, such as learning English and maintaining a job.
Sources familiar with the Senate plan told The Examiner that it includes provisions that would require employers to verify the legal status of their workers and beef up security along the U.S.-Mexico border. It would require that 90 percent of all illegal immigrants entering certain points along the border be caught.
Congress has failed to pass various versions of immigration reform over the years mainly because Republicans and Democrats can't agree on what to do about the millions of illegal immigrants already in the country.
Republicans have derided all plans to legalize them as amnesty for lawbreakers. But lawmakers said increasing public support for reform is starting to sway members of Congress. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released last week showed 64 percent of the public supports granting citizenship to illegal immigrants.
"The key to this, on support, is they have to learn English, pay backtaxes and get in line behind everybody else," McCain said. "That's the fairness part of it that appeals to people. They want the issue resolved, but they don't want instant citizenship as a reward for acting illegal."
In the House, things are moving more slowly, but the plans will likely be on "the same planet," said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., one of the proposal's authors.
"I don't know timing, but I do think it has to be real soon," he told The Examiner. "But I caution against rushing something this complex. I think its important to, as much as possible, to take a little more time to close out all these issues. But it has to be this year."
Cost could become a big hurdle. The Congressional Budget Office will have to "score" the costs of both immigration proposals, and at least two groups, including the conservative Heritage Foundation and Harvard University, are planning to issue their own studies on its fiscal impact.
Diaz-Balart admitted that the cost of reform could make passage of reform much harder. Both border security and legalizing those living here illegally could have a significant impact on the nation's already massive debt and deficit.
"If we file a bill that has a huge score, that's a big problem," Diaz-Balart said.