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With labor organizations and outside activists ramping up their lobbying efforts, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and White House officials have opened backstage discussions on making a push for comprehensive immigration reform later this year despite continued resistance from Republicans.
Schumer, who chairs the Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees and Border Security, last month initiated talks with the White House, a source close to the New York Democrat said, and has begun a series of hearings on immigration, border security and related issues.
Schumer appears to be taking a slow approach and is essentially starting from scratch on the development of legislation. Thats why were having the hearings, Schumer said recently.
At the same time, both sides of the debate are signing up lobbyists. Since April, more than a dozen companies and coalitions have hired outside lobbyists to work immigration issues, including the Immigration Policy Center, the Campaign to Reform Immigration for America and the International Exchange of North America.
They are actively talking to policy shops within the White House and key players on the Hill, trying to push to have something happen this year, said one Democratic lobbyist working for a pro-immigration-reform group.
Weve been very active watching the new administration, learning about who the new players are and what their pet issues are, said Julie Kirchner of the anti-immigration advocacy group Federation for American Immigration Reform. Congressional leaders are not being shy that they want to move this issue forward.
Largely absent from these preliminary moves are Senate Republicans.
According to several Republicans, immigration is not a topic of serious discussion at this point within the GOP Conference, and the issue isnt a priority for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who has focused much of his Conferences messaging and legislative efforts on the ongoing economic crisis and foreign policy issues.
I dont think its on anyones radar, a senior GOP aide said, adding that Republicans will likely resist any effort to take up the thorny issue this year.
Republicans point out that the controversial nature of immigration reform will almost certainly mean that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Schumer and others must find at least a handful of Republicans to back any bill. But with Obama putting much of his political capital into health care reform, that could be difficult.
Indeed, one source argued that Obama so far has succeeded in tempering Republican opposition to his top agenda item by connecting the need for dramatic health care reform to the economy. By linking the two issues in the public mind, Democrats have given health care the kind of urgency that pushes it to the front of lawmakers minds and makes the chances of reform this year much better.
But connecting immigration reform to the economy particularly when thousands of Americans continue to lose their jobs every month would be much more difficult.
Obama has done a very good job of intertwining health care with the economy ... and I just dont think they can do that with immigration, a GOP leadership aide said. Without that linkage and the attendant sense of urgency it creates, Republicans would feel much more comfortable taking a more protectionist, anti-comprehensive reform stance, the aide said, particularly given the Conferences strong conservative streak.
Republicans would likely counter a major immigration push with a populist argument of you should be focused on helping Americans first, the leadership aide said, adding that its a no-brainer for our Conference.
That tactic would carry potentially serious drawbacks for Republicans, who are struggling to maintain a foothold with Latino voters. Recent polls have shown that immigration is a top priority for Latinos regardless of their legal status, and Republicans could end up doing themselves more harm than good in the end, warned Mario Lopez, president of the Republican-leaning Hispanic Leadership Fund.
Lopez, who said it remains unclear whether the administration will ultimately take up the issue in earnest, urged Republicans to rethink their position on immigration.
There are opportunities for Republicans to do well with the issue, Lopez argued, adding, The caveat is that they have to be willing to take a fresh look at the issue and especially the rhetoric.
Anna Palmer contributed to this report.