President Barack Obama on Thursday made his biggest push yet to pass comprehensive immigration reform legislation this year.
During a bipartisan, bicameral meeting at the White House with nearly three dozen lawmakers, Obama told immigration stakeholders that he wants to wrap up the issue by the end of this year, or by early 2010 at the latest.
There is not by any means consensus across the table, Obama said after the session. But what I'm encouraged by is that after all the overheated rhetoric and the occasional demagoguery on all sides around this issue, we've got a responsible set of leaders sitting around the table who want to actively get something done and not put it off until a year, two years, three years, five years from now, but to start working on this thing right now.
Democrats said Obamas message that comprehensive immigration reform should happen sooner than later was loud and clear.
Pushing this off until next year makes it more difficult politically, due to mid-term elections in November, said Rep. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.), who attended the meeting. The president would like to see it done before the end of the year. He is pretty cognizant in terms of next year and the issues before us.
We have to get this done this year or its not going to happen in the presidents first term, said Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.), who was also at the meeting. Weve all banged the table enough. Weve all shouted at each other on television enough. Now its time to get down to work. I think the time politically is ripe.
Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chairwoman Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.), House Democratic Caucus Vice Chairman Xavier Becerra (Calif.), Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) were among the key lawmakers in the meeting. Administration officials included Vice President Joseph Biden, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis.
During the meeting, Obama told lawmakers that he is ready to speak out publicly, ready to use whatever capital he had left to make sure immigration reform happens, Weiner said. Obama also said he has tapped Napolitano to lead a bipartisan, bicameral group to hash out immigration issues in the coming months.
Weiner said lawmakers from both parties think the House already has the votes to pass an immigration reform bill built on the same principles as a Senate immigration bill that failed last year.
The three key parts to any bill, he said, have to be strong border security, a way to ensure that employers follow the law and a path to legalization for the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants.
Obama also emphasized that people need to be thoughtful about the language they use when talking about undocumented workers.
If were going to call everything amnesty and say were going to round up the 12 million people here that dont have documentation, that wont lead us to a conclusion, Weiner said.
Crowley speculated that moving forward on the issue would not be as hard as people might think. Its not as complex as health care reform or energy reform. Its controversial, but not as complicated. I think that lends itself to a line to be accomplished this year, he said.
But despite the surge of optimism, obstacles remain for advancing the issue. Democrats conceded that discussions on a guest-worker program could be a sticking point for them since labor unions dont support it but business groups do.
The guest program is going to be where the rubber hits the road for many of us on the left, Weiner said.
Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) said past Senate deals struck on immigration reform were not the basis for talks occurring in the House. Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), who chairs the CHC Immigration Task Force, also seemed uncertain about whether House Democrats would go along with a temporary worker program.
Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) said the coalition of centrist lawmakers that rallied around immigration legislation last year has disbanded and it would take work to build it back up again. But he insisted that, as long as a proposal addresses a temporary program and includes a path to legalization, a new deal could be forged.
Still, he acknowledged that passing comprehensive reform this year would be tough.
McCain, a key player in the last round of immigration debates, sat next to Obama during todays meeting and emphasized that a temporary worker program must be part of any deal.
Several lawmakers emphasized that immigration reform must be taken up under regular order. Democrats likely to take the lead on the issue in each chamber are Crowley and Schumer.
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) exited the meeting feeling very optimistic that Congress can advance legislation this year.
Todays meeting was a real shot in the arm, added Schumer, who reiterated Obamas message that by the end of the year or early next year, we can get this done.