WASHINGTON - President Bush, promoting bipartisan immigration talks as they reach a critical stage, said yesterday that Republicans and Democrats were building a consensus that could produce a bill this year.
"I am optimistic we can pass a comprehensive immigration bill and get this problem solved for the American people this year," Bush said in his weekly radio address.
The president used the address to put pressure on senators as they prepare to hold a vote on the matter this week. Signing an overhaul into law would be viewed as a marquee domestic achievement for Bush.
He has dispatched Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, to Capitol Hill for almost daily closed-door meetings with a handful of Republicans and Democrats to cut an immigration deal. The group is eyeing a Tuesday deadline for a compromise.
"These meetings have been productive. We've been addressing our differences in good faith, and we're building consensus. Both Republicans and Democrats understand that successful immigration reform must be bipartisan," Bush said.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D., Mass.) thanked Bush for "addressing the nation on this critical issue and emphasizing the common goals that we share.
"The American people will be watching and waiting to see if the Senate can come together on immigration reform and strike the right balance between strengthening our security and our economy and enacting laws that uphold the humanity and dignity of those who come here seeking a better life," Kennedy said.
Both sides have an interest in addressing the topic, which polls show is among Americans' top concerns. It's also a top issue for Hispanic voters, a fast-growing segment of the electorate that is being courted by the two parties.
Talks were to continue throughout the weekend on a possible deal that would first secure the U.S.-Mexican border and implement an elaborate high-tech identification system for immigrant workers, and only then give an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States a chance at legal status - after paying high fines, returning home, and waiting as long as 13 more years.
The proposal also would create a guest-worker program for new arrivals, but it would prevent many of them from staying in the United States.