WASHINGTON — The immigration bill before the Senate is a source of great agony and a fountainhead of opportunity.

Senators in both parties are deeply torn within themselves over what to do.

Take, first, the Democrats. A substantial majority of them support giving 12 million or so illegal immigrants a path to citizenship. But they find two features of the bill particularly troublesome.

The most disconcerting is a guest worker program through which about 200,000 immigrants would be admitted each year — but only for two years. After that, they would in principle have to go home for a year before they could try to come back again.

The problems with this are both moral and practical. Guest workers are a bad idea, period. Workers should not be treated as if they were factors of production such as steel or plastic. They are human beings. The best way to guarantee the rights and wages of all Americans is to give every immigrant the opportunity to become a citizen, with all the rights and duties that entails.

In any event, the notion that all or even most of the 200,000 guest workers would return home right on schedule is laughable. We could be opening up a brand new immigration problem.

The other provision that bothers so many Democrats, particularly Latinos, is a point system based on various qualifications, including employment and education, for determining who would get preference for green cards. It would have the effect of making it harder for immigrants to bring in members of their families.

This idea has drawn fire from, among others, Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Obama said the proposed system “places a person’s job skills over his character and work ethic.” In pushing to change this part of the bill, Clinton said tartly: “For those who often speak about family values, this is your opportunity to match your rhetoric with your action.” (Here’s betting that Clinton wins this one.)

These are real issues, but they must be balanced against the urgency of doing something about the illegal immigrants already inside the United States. Most Democrats, uncharacteristically, agreed with President Bush when he said at his news conference last Thursday: “You can’t kick them out. Anybody who advocates trying to dig out 12 million people who have been in our society for a while is sending a signal to the American people that’s just not real. It’s an impractical solution.”

That’s the opportunity. Politically, it will be much easier for Democrats if a Republican president and a substantial number of Republicans in Congress push through legalization. Otherwise, Democrats might have to bear this burden by themselves — if they should keep control of Congress and win the White House in 2008. However they vote on a final bill, both Clinton and Obama (and every other Democrat running for president) have an interest in getting something done now.

For Republicans, the politics are even harder. Their core constituencies are at odds. Business groups definitely want an immigration bill, while many social and cultural conservatives (though not all religious conservatives) think any form of mass legalization is “amnesty” and a sell-out.

The loudest voices on the Republican side, including much of the conservative talk show army and many websites, despise the bill. They are furious at Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., for lining up with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., to push this compromise.

But Kyl, who had a tougher 2006 re-election campaign than he expected, knows that many voters simply want a solution to the immigration problem. He has used the Democrats’ desire for broad legalization to extract some tough concessions, including a provision postponing the effect of most of the bill until a variety of steps against illegal entry are taken.

And many Republicans also know that their share of the growing Latino vote dropped sharply in 2006 because they were seen as blocking action on immigration in Congress.

The opportunity for Bush is to get credit for a major achievement at a moment when — well, let’s just say he could use one right now. His party could share in the triumph and staunch the flow of Latino votes the Democrats’ way.

Just about everybody has a problem with parts of this bill. But just about everybody has an even bigger problem with the status quo. My hunch is that the politics of opportunity have a slight advantage over whatever agony may be called forth by this imperfect compromise.

E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is postchat(at symbol)aol.com.

© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group

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