Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) postponed debate on comprehensive immigration reform until May 21 to allow for continued closed-door negotiations between Bush administration officials and Republican and Democratic senators, aimed at working out a new bipartisan bill that is more acceptable to right-wing Republicans than what the Senate passed last year.

As a possible starting point for debate this year, Reid reintroduced verbatim the bill that was passed by the Republican-controlled Senate last year. It was felt that this bill, now numbered S 1368, could win enough Republican votes to get past Senate cloture rules requiring 60 votes to end debate and move to a vote. There are 51 in the Democratic caucus and 49 Republicans in the Senate.

President Bush, however, has worked with right-wing senators to unite behind a demand for a more punitive and restrictive bill, to be negotiated behind closed doors. Facing the possibility of losing a cloture vote, Reid postponed debate to allow such negotiations a chance to come up with a bipartisan compromise that can pass cloture.

These Senate developments have alarmed growing numbers of labor, immigrant rights, civil rights and Latino groups. Bush/Republican proposals for extremely punitive and restrictive legalization, guest worker and enforcement provisions, with a huge cutback of family reunification visas, have been unanimously rejected by immigrant rights supporters. Even Reid’s bill was found unacceptable by much of the immigrant rights movement.

The AFL-CIO has warned that it will “strongly” oppose any bill without a path to legal permanent residence. The Catholic “Justice for Immigrants” campaign is calling for a “just and humane” bill. House Democrats are preparing to oppose objectionable anti-immigrant measures that might pass the Senate.

Last week Rep. Jerold Nadler (D-N.Y.) introduced HR 2221 to strengthen family reunification provisions that Bush and Senate Republicans are attacking. The bill has 72 co-sponsors, including House Judiciary Committee Chair John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Education and Labor Committee Chair George Miller (D-Calif.).

“Regardless of what bill comes up for debate in the Senate,” said Rosalio Muñoz of the Communist Party USA Southern California district, “public pressure is needed on all senators for the principles of immediate non-punitive legalization of all undocumented workers and their families, with a rapid and reasonable path to permanent residence, expansion of due process and judicial review, family reunification and opposition to expanded guest worker programs.”