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Senate immigration deal is close

Bipartisan group has been meeting since November

– A working group of senators from both parties is nearing agreement on broad principles for overhauling the nation’s immigration laws.

The six members have met quietly since the November election, most recently on Wednesday. Congressional aides stressed there is not yet final agreement, but they have eyed next Friday as a target date for a possible public announcement.

The talks mark the most in-depth negotiations involving members of both parties since a similar effort broke down in 2010 without producing a bill.

“We have basic agreement on many of the core principles,” Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin, D-Ill., a member of the group, said this week. “Now we have to draft it. It takes time.”

“The group we’ve been meeting with – and it’s equal number of Democrats and Republicans – we’re real close,” added Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., another member of the group.

The accelerated pace signals that immigration reform is expected to be one of Congress’ highest priorities, and it comes as the White House prepares to launch its own public campaign on the issue.

President Obama will travel to Las Vegas on Tuesday to speak about the need to “fix the broken immigration system this year,” the administration announced, an appearance in a state with a rapidly growing number of Hispanic voters, who overwhelmingly supported his re-election. Obama also met with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus on Friday.

“The president has made clear that he intends to act very quickly,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said Thursday.

Past efforts begun amid similarly high hopes have sputtered. But members of both parties increasingly see changes to the nation’s troubled immigration system as an area most likely to draw bipartisan agreement at a time when Congress is deeply divided on gun control, spending and taxes.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a veteran of a 2007 effort who is part of the current working group, said Republican attitudes have dramatically shifted since the party’s defeat at the polls in November.

Obama won more than 70 percent of the vote among Latinos and Asians, and a growing number of GOP leaders believe action on immigration is necessary to expand the party’s appeal to minority groups.

“Obviously, it’s had a very distinct impression,” said McCain, who lost his own bid for the White House in 2008. “It’s time to move forward on this.”

But he added, “I don’t claim that it’s going to be easy.”

Their timetable would aim for a bill to be written by March or April and potentially considered for final passage in the Senate as early as the summer.

Proponents believe adoption in the GOP-held House would be made easier with a strong bipartisan vote in the Senate.

The working group’s principles would address stricter border control, better employer verification of workers’ immigration status, new visas for temporary agriculture workers and expanding the number of visas available for skilled engineers.

They would also include a call to help young people who were brought to the country illegally as children by their parents become citizens and to normalize the status of the nation’s 11 million illegal immigrants.

But obstacles abound. For instance, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., part of the new Senate group, has said he believes immigrants who came to the country illegally should be able to earn a work permit. But he has said they should be required to seek citizenship through existing avenues, and only after those who have come to the country legally.

Democrats and immigration advocates fear that approach could result in wait times stretching for decades, creating a class of permanent legal residents for whom the benefits of citizenship appear unattainable.

They have pushed to create new pathways to citizenship specifically available to those who achieve legal residency as part a reform effort.

It is not yet clear if the Senate group will endorse a mechanism allowing such people to eventually become citizens – something Obama is expected to champion. Schumer said it would be “relatively detailed,” but would not “get down into the weeds.”

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