WASHINGTON Prospects for U.S. Senate passage of an immigration bill with strong bipartisan support brightened on Wednesday when a group of Republican and Democratic negotiators reached a tentative deal on ways to shore up border security, senators said.
After days of intensive negotiations, a small group of senators had hit upon a compromise that was being floated more broadly in order to gauge support, Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee told reporters.
"I think we've overcome the issues that have separated the group in negotiations. I think we're together now," Corker said.
It was unclear how the new package might be received by senators who are considered to be undecided and Corker did not want to reveal details of the potential compromise.
A positive response could mean that the Senate next week would approve a sweeping immigration bill by a huge margin, giving it greater chances of success in the House of Representatives.
A Senate aide familiar with the talks said the tentative agreement called for "an unprecedented deployment" of law enforcement personnel at the southwestern border with Mexico and new commitments to strengthen border fences.
As the Senate worked on its legislation, 25 members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus met with House Speaker John Boehner to discuss prospects for a bill in that chamber.
Democratic Representative Ruben Hinojosa of Texas, who chairs the caucus, said Boehner told them "there is a big effort on both sides of the aisle to come to some compromise" on a bipartisan bill that could pass in the Republican-led House.
The Senate bill, which would bring the biggest change in U.S. immigration policy since 1986, would put 11 million undocumented residents on a pathway to citizenship, strengthen border security and update the U.S. visa system.
Corker indicated that the tentative deal, which still could fall apart, contains additional money, on top of the more than $6 billion already in the bill, for border security operations.
A Republican demand that the Obama administration achieve a 90 percent success rate in stopping illegal border crossings as a condition for the pathway to citizenship was "not a sticking point anymore," Corker said. He would not elaborate.
Democrats have pressed hard to prevent such a link.
Some Democratic senators already were buoyed by Tuesday's Congressional Budget Office report, which concluded that the Senate immigration bill would reduce federal budget deficits by nearly $900 billion over 20 years and boost the U.S. economy.
The economic projection is "a big game-changer," New Jersey Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, a member of the bi-partisan "Gang of Eight" that wrote the bill, told Reuters.
Menendez said the CBO report undermined Republican arguments that the measure would cost the government trillions of dollars over the long term, mainly in federal benefit payouts to illegal immigrants who are put on a path to citizenship.
Brian Fallon, a spokesman for Democratic Senator Charles Schumer, a member of the "Gang of Eight," said the CBO report "assumes that some immigrants who enter the country legally will overstay their visas" under new programs for temporary workers.
"The bill creates a system to track people who overstay their visas and prevents employers from hiring them, so the number is likely to be much lower than CBO projects," he said.
The Senate, controlled by Democrats, 54-46, is expected to vote on passage of the measure by the end of next week, just before Congress begins its Fourth of July holiday recess.
Menendez voiced confidence that all 54 members of the Senate Democratic caucus will support the bill, along with a number of Republicans. Backers have long hoped they could get 70 or more votes for passage in the Senate.
The bill faces an uncertain fate in the House, where Boehner declared on Tuesday that he would only bring immigration measures to the full chamber that enjoy the support of most of his fellow Republicans.
Many House Republicans have vowed to oppose a bill like the Senate's, voicing objections to the pathway to citizenship, which they argue would reward lawbreakers.
(Reporting by Thomas Ferraro and Richard Cowan; Additional reporting by Rachelle Younglai; Editing by Fred Barbash and Jim Loney)