For the first time in two decades, the U.S. Senate on Wednesday begins debate on the way overdue issue of comprehensive immigration reform. The Senate Judiciary Committee now has until March 27 to come up with a definitive proposal.

Unfortunately, the debate is mired in a growing Republican civil war that could sink the whole process. On the one side are conservatives like John McCain in the Senate and Jeff Flake in the House who have joined with Democrats to support both a guest worker program and legalization for the 11 million "illegals" estimated to be living in the U.S. They’ve come together around the so-called McCain-Kennedy proposal which is also supported by immigrant advocate groups and organized labor.

On the other side are the so-called "restrictionists" who want to continue with our current head-in-the-sand policy and merely build bigger and higher walls and fences. While the latter sentiment already manifested itself ina bill passed last December in the House, there had been some optimism that the Senate would do a more reasonable job.

But just as the crucial debate begins, the Chair of the Judiciary Committee, Senator Arlen Specter, has done his best to make things more complicated and more confused. Call it unrestrained ego or sinister subterfuge, but Specter has cooked up his own last-minute proposal which will now become the "main" bill that his committee will mark up. While Specter sides with the liberalizers in proposing that the undocumented already here be given work permits, his measure winds up on the restrictionist side in not allowing those same workers to be put on a path to permanent residence or citizenship.

No surprise that Specter’s proposal has left both sides of the debate unsatisfied. The good news is that the Senate is finally edging toward reality on this issue by merely having the debate. The bad news will be if it can’t get past the sort of half-measures proposed by Specter. The elephant in the room are the 11 million undocumented already living here. Time to stop living in denial.