WASHINGTON - The terms of the immigration debate have turned less friendly for illegal immigrants as lawmakers and the Bush administration struggle to reach a deal in the next few weeks.
The landscape for an immigration overhaul has turned upside down in only a year, with a different party in control of Congress and new political realities for President Bush and the chief congressional negotiators.
Bush - in search of a domestic legacy - has morphed from cheerleader on the sidelines to broker in the fray, dispatching Cabinet members for lengthy daily meetings with senators on Capitol Hill.
Last year's GOP point man, Sen. John McCain - whose moderate stance on immigration defined last year's approach - is hanging back, wary of angering conservatives while he struggles to keep his presidential run going.
And while Republican divisions were highlighted last year, this time it's Democrats - eager to show they can lead - whose fissures are on display.
In an ironic twist, the outlines of a potential deal have moved to the right - toward a more difficult road to citizenship for the nation's roughly 12 million illegal immigrants - even as the power in Congress has shifted to Democrats, who overwhelmingly favor a more permissive approach.
The White House has floated a proposal that would require illegal immigrants to pay fines as high as $10,000, face long waits and return to their home countries in order to be eligible for citizenship - far tougher conditions than in a bipartisan measure passed by the Senate last year and backed by Bush. The immigrants also would be denied a right to bring family members to the United States.
A bipartisan House measure introduced earlier this year would add a new mandate that undocumented immigrants go home before gaining legal status - a requirement that many Democrats and pro-immigrant groups have decried as "report to deport."
The changes reflect a new political calculus for Republicans, who fear that any plan passed by the centrist Senate will become more permissive toward immigrants in the more liberal House and during final Democratic-dominated negotiations.
Democrats, in turn, recognize that any immigration plan must have substantial GOP support in order to have a chance of being signed into law, so they are considering tougher measures. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has told Bush he must deliver 70 Republican votes before she will attempt to pass any immigration bill.
The White House said the proposal floated recently was part of an effort to find an immigration plan the president's party could agree on.
"Those were discussion points on which consensus was beginning to build among Republican senators," said Scott Stanzel, a White House spokesman.
As Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., his party's point man on the issue, huddles with Republicans and Bush's team in search of a deal, other Democrats are impatient to pitch their own, more immigrant-friendly plan. Many advocates of an overhaul, including immigrant advocacy groups, business interests and organized labor, are adamantly opposed to the framework under discussion.
"This is the kind of gut-wrenching moment that happens before a deal is about to be cut and before legislation is about to start moving," said Angela Kelley, the deputy director of the National Immigration Forum, a private group pushing for an overhaul.
Bush and Democrats regard the tricky issue as one of their few areas of potential compromise during a year dominated by partisan clashes on the Iraq war. Strategists in both parties say the 2006 elections - which punished many vocally anti-immigration candidates - showed that voters support action on the issue.
But the clock is ticking on attempts to compromise, with the Senate set to debate immigration next month and most insiders seeing August as a deadline for action by both chambers.
"There are plenty of Democrats who would rather just walk away and say the Republicans are racist, and the Hispanics will vote for us, and then we'll do something" after the 2008 elections, said Tamar Jacoby, an immigration expert at the conservative Hudson Institute who has consulted with the White House and Republicans on the issue.
Last year's effort collapsed as House Republicans revolted against the Senate-passed measure, calling it amnesty. They rejected Bush's call for a "comprehensive" deal that included both a temporary guest worker program for new arrivals and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants already here. Many conservative Republicans, particularly in the House, still are adamantly opposed to any such measure.
Now GOP leaders have tapped Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, one of those who hung back from the comprehensive approach amid a tough re-election fight, to lead negotiations on a compromise.
McCain's office, meanwhile, denies that he has scaled back his once-prominent role.
"The more members that are involved the better, but he is thoroughly engaged and totally committed to finding a solution," said Eileen McMenamin, McCain's spokeswoman.
Privately, senators in both parties and strategists on the issue say he has faded from the forefront of immigration negotiations - leaving his staff to track them and a confidant, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, to mediate - while he waits for the right moment to weigh in.
"He'll be there if they emerge with a bipartisan bill - he'll be there standing with everyone else - but it didn't pay for him to be the lonely guy," Jacoby said.