WASHINGTON – Despite steep odds, the White House is considering a series of new steps in the coming weeks aimed at reviving prospects for a major overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws, a commitment that President Barack Obama has postponed once already.
Obama discussed the issue privately with his staff Monday in a bid to advance a bill through Congress before lawmakers become too distracted by approaching midterm elections.
In the session, Obama and members of his Domestic Policy Council outlined ways to resuscitate the effort, including a White House meeting with two senators who have spent months trying to craft a bill: Democrat Charles Schumer of New York and Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
According to a person familiar with the meeting, the White House may ask Schumer and Graham to at least produce a blueprint that could be turned into concrete legislative language.
Participants in the White House gathering also pointed to an immigration rally set for March 21 in Washington as a way to spotlight the issue and build needed momentum.
Though proponents of an immigration overhaul were pleased the White House isn’t abandoning the effort, they also want Obama to take on a more assertive role, rather than leave it Congress to work out a compromise.
Immigration is a delicate issue for the White House. After promising to revamp what many see as a fractured system in his first year in office, Obama risks angering a growing, politically potent Latino constituency if he now defers the goal until 2011.
But with the health care debate still unresolved, Democrats are wary of plunging into yet another polarizing issue with no clear outcome in sight.
“Right now we have a little problem with the Chicken Little mentality: The sky is falling and consequently we can’t do anything,” Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., said in an interview. “Stand still. Don’t do anything, and certainly don’t bring up divisive issues like immigration because it will hurt us in maintaining our majorities.”
Republicans are unlikely to cooperate. On Capitol Hill, Republicans said that partisan tensions have only gotten worse since Obama signaled this week he would push forward with a health care bill, whether he can get GOP votes or not.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said in an interview: “The things you hear from the (Obama) administration won’t be well received.”
Schumer, speaking as he walked quickly through the Capitol, said he is having trouble rounding up Republican supporters apart from Graham. “It’s tough finding someone, but we’re trying,” Schumer said.
On Thursday, Schumer met with Obama’s Homeland Security chief, Janet Napolitano, who oversees the government’s immigration efforts, to strategize over potential Republican co-sponsors.
“We’re very hopeful we can get a bill done. We have all the pieces in place. We just need a second Republican,” Schumer said in a statement.
The basis of an immigration bill involves a path toward citizenship for the 10.8 million undocumented people living in the U.S. illegally. Citizenship would not be granted lightly, the White House said. Undocumented workers would need to register, pay taxes and pay a penalty for violating the law. Failure to comply might result in deportation.
Nick Shapiro, a White House spokesman, said the president’s support for an immigration bill, which would also include improved border security, is “unwavering.”
Among proponents, there is a consensus that a proposal must move by April or early May to have a realistic chance of passing this year. If that deadline slips, Congress’ focus is likely to shift to the November elections, making it impossible to take up major legislation.
“There’s no question that this is a heavy lift and the window is narrowing for immigration reform to occur. But it’s still too soon to say it’s over,” said Janet Murguia, president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza, a Latino advocacy group.