Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, said: “We have a great opportunity to deliver to the American people what they expect, what they deserve”, a comprehensive border security and immigration reform bill.
The deal, which would include a temporary worker program backed by President George W Bush, would allow illegal immigrants who have been in the United States more than five years a chance to become citizens if they meet a series of requirements and paid a fine. Other rules would apply to people in the country less than five years.
“We still have obstacles ahead,” said Sen John McCain, an Arizona Republican who helped lead the debate. Mr McCain cited some pending amendments that could gut the compromise as well as eventual negotiations with the House of Representatives, which passed a much harsher bill that concentrated only on border security and enforcement of immigration laws.
Mr McCain said Mr Bush supports the compromise.
The Senate compromise would give illegal immigrants who had been in the US less than five years but more than two years a chance to obtain a temporary work visa. They would have to leave the country and reapply to come back. Those who had been in the country less than two years would not be legalised.
The initial proposals by the two parties differed significantly.
In general, the measure backed by Democrats would have granted most of the 11 million immigrants legalised status and the opportunity to apply for citizenship after meeting several conditions. They included payment of a fine and any back taxes, passing a background check and learning English.
By contrast, the Republican approach would have required illegal immigrants who have been in the US between two years and five years to return to their home country briefly, then re-enter as temporary workers.
Illegal immigrants in the US longer than five years would not be required to return home; those in the country less than two years would be required to leave without assurances of returning and take their place in line with others seeking entry papers.