DISCOURAGED by some outrageous proposals bandied about in the House of Representatives on how to combat illegal immigration, I had hoped the grown-ups in the Senate could do better.

No such luck. Don't look now, but the equivalent of a schoolyard scuffle has broken out in the upper house.

It started when the class bully, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, tried to short-circuit the efforts of the Judiciary Committee to produce an immigration reform bill by proposing a bill of his own. The gesture was a finger in the eye of Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Penn., who has been trying to unite rival factions and produce something the Senate can discuss — all by today. That is the deadline set by Frist for the full Senate to begin its debate of this contentious issue. Frist wants the debate to wrap up by April 7, when the Senate goes on recess.

What is the rush? Congress has not taken a hard look at immigration reform in 20 years, and now Frist wants to breeze through it in less than 20 days. A spokesman for the majority leader insists the Judiciary Committee is dragging its feet, and Frist is just trying to keep things moving.

The truth is that the Frist maneuver is about only two things: amnesty and his desire to distance himself from anything that resembles it while mounting a 2008 presidential bid.

Frist has said he does not support giving legal status to the undocumented. But amnesty is where the Judiciary Committee is heading. Specter has proposed a bill that would let illegal immigrants remain in the United States indefinitely — provided they register with the Department of Homeland Security, pay back taxes, abide by the law and remain employed.

Specter also has said he would go along with providing illegal immigrants a path to residency, provided the United States first clears through the backlog of 3 million people waiting to immigrate legally.

I do not have a problem with Frist being against amnesty. I happen to agree. The trouble is, with that off the table, there is not much left to talk about but increasing enforcement. Frist's bill spends more time discussing how to prevent illegal immigration than what to do with illegal immigrants who already are here.

Yet, regardless of whether the Judiciary Committee produces a bill, Frist seems ready to put his bill before the full Senate.

But wait. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said last week he would try to tie up Frist's bill with procedural motions if the majority leader goes to the floor with legislation that has not been vetted in the Judiciary Committee. Reid says he wants comprehensive reform — increased enforcement, guest workers and legalization for millions of illegal immigrants.

Note the common theme. This is not finished, but it is close to being finished. In the Senate, most roads lead to amnesty. And the anti-legalization lobby is just about out of moves. And so now it is time for them to come up with a "Plan B" and think of something they can live with.

Personally, in exchange for beefing up enforcement on the border and cracking down on employers with fines and jail time, I could go along with limited amnesty. Preference should be given to those who have been here the longest and have immediate family members who are here legally. The others would be deported. Those allowed to stay would have to do everything Specter mentioned, although I would add requirements: They should have to learn English and enroll in citizenship classes.

The goal should be to get these newcomers to buy into the United States, and cut the ties that bind them to their home country. That is good for the immigrant and good for our country. It is also an essential part of any immigration reform package that deserves to be called comprehensive.

Ruben Navarrette writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.