PHOENIX — Immigration reform, the centerpiece of President Barack Obama's second-term domestic agenda, lost momentum amid the partisan brinkmanship that led to the government shutdown. Some reform opponents believe the profound lack of trust between House Republicans and the White House all but ensures the issue won't proceed this year.
Obama, however, last week signaled that he is not surrendering on one of the issues he ran on when he was first elected president in 2008.
In an interview with Univision's Los Angeles affiliate, Obama indicated he will press forward on immigration reform immediately after the dust settles from the fiscal fight and demand that House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and other Republican leaders allow a vote on a Senate-passed comprehensive bill.
"And if I have to join with other advocates and continue to speak out on that, and keep pushing, I'm going to do so because I think it's really important for the country," Obama said. "And now is the time to do it."
Reform supporters have remained optimistic that the GOP-controlled House of Representatives will consider several immigration-related bills in November. Their hope is that the House will pass legislation that could lead to negotiations with the Democrat-controlled Senate. On June 27, the upper chamber passed a comprehensive bill that includes a massive investment in border security and a pathway to citizenship for many of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants who have settled in the United States. Most observers believe, as a practical matter, lawmakers have at most a few months to act on immigration reform before Congress is paralyzed by 2014 midterm election politics.
But many of the crucial pieces of immigration legislation in the House, such as a bill that could address the legal status of undocumented immigrants already settled in the United States, have yet to surface.
Recognizing time is running out,immigration activists and reform advocates are pressuring lawmakers in pursuit of a breakthrough before Thanksgiving or, at the latest, mid-December.
Reform supporters say if the House delays action on immigration reform until 2014, it's as good as dead because there will be little appetite to debate such a hot-button issue in a congressional midterm election year. If that happens, there likely won't be another serious legislative push until after the 2016 presidential race.
Despite the distractions of the recent Syria crisis and the bitter fiscal fight, reform proponents say they are heartened by the fact that influential House Republicans are still inclined to press ahead with legislation. Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte of Virginia have been crafting a bill that would address the legal status of the young undocumented immigrants commonly called "dreamers" while Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the 2012 GOP vice-presidential nominee and a possible 2016 White House candidate, is said to be working on a proposal directed at the broader undocumented population.
The impact of the past several weeks of partisan bitterness on the immigration-reform dynamics remains unclear, with some House Republicans harboring hard feelings toward Obama and others seeing a positive post-shutdown opportunity to govern "and show the country that we can do our jobs," said Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorks USA, a national coalition of business groups that backs immigration reform. Which House GOP faction wins out in the short term remains to be seen, although the bruised egos represent a fresh challenge for reform supporters.
"House Republicans will not do this if they see it as, 'The president just beat us and now he's going to shove this down our throats,'" Jacoby said. "That is just not a way to get it done."
'Could see floor action'
Boehner this year frustrated some immigration activists by declaring the Senate's comprehensive bill dead on arrival in the House and by signaling that any of the other smaller bills must be supported by a majority of his GOP conference. The piecemeal approach also likely would include bills focusing on border security, visas for foreign workers and immigration enforcement. Five measures already have cleared committees, so Boehner could easily set aside a week this fall to hold a series of immigration votes. He has said doing nothing on immigration is not an option.
"We're still committed to moving forward on step-by-step, common-sense reforms," Boehner spokesman Michael Steel told The Arizona Republic in an email. "The Judiciary Committee has already passed several bills that could see floor action."
Rep. Ed Pastor, D-Ariz., said he believes House Republican leaders are sincere and sees a potential opening for immigration reform in the next several weeks. If five or so immigration bills are passed, the legislation could be bundled and provide the basis for a joint House-Senate conference committee that would hammer out a final version based on the legislation that each chamber passed.
"Paul Ryan has been meeting with various Democrats, and I think Paul Ryan is probably the biggest advocate for getting something done," said Pastor.
What, precisely, the House Republicans have in mind for the 11 million undocumented immigrants remains unclear. Obama and the Democrats have said a pathway to citizenship is a must, but many GOP members are wary of anything that conservative activists could portray as "amnesty" for undocumented immigrants.
An estimated 4.4 million unauthorized adults have U.S. citizen children who could eventually sponsor them, Jacoby said.
Some Democrats may even be inclined to go along with just a bill focused on the dreamers as long as they see it as a steppingstone to address the rest of the 11 million immigrants.
"If Republicans want to get credit for reform, they have to come forward with something serious, which includes legalization and a path to citizenship," said Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, a national organization that champions comprehensive immigration reform. "If they do, I think the Democrats will work with them on it. But right now, the Republicans are off talking to themselves. Until they come forward with proposals, there's really nothing to react to."
But given the narrowing window of opportunity and the complexity of the various immigration issues, other observers suggested the forecast for action on immigration reform this year may be bleaker than the die-hard supporters may suspect.
There are other dynamics to consider. Boehner could rely on Democrats and a minority of Republicans to pass immigration legislation, as some have urged him to do, but would risk a conservative revolt that could cost him his speaker's job.
The interests of national Republican leaders also remain at odds with many rank-and-file House GOP members when it comes to reaching out to Latino voters, who backed Obama in droves over 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney. Many GOP House members represent conservative congressional districts and are not convinced that immigration reform represents good policy or good politics.
"There's just not that much enthusiasm to deal with it up on the Hill," said Steven Camarota, director of research for the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that supports more immigration enforcement and overall reductions in immigration. "The Republicans don't have that much incentive to deal with it, there's a million other things to contend with it, and time constraints matter enormously. All of that makes it unlikely."