WASHINGTON – The White House and a bipartisan group of senators will launch an effort next week to jump-start negotiations to overhaul the immigration system, an issue that has languished in Washington for years.
Obama will begin his second-term immigration push during a trip Tuesday to Las Vegas. The Senate working group is also aiming to outline its proposals at about the same time, according to a Senate aide.
Even before those plans are formally unveiled, there is emerging consensus on several components, most notably the need for some kind of pathway to citizenship for the 11 million illegal immigrants already in the United States.
The proposals will commence what is sure to be a contentious and emotional debate following 2012 election results that saw Latino voters turn out in large numbers to re-elect Obama — a signal to many Republican leaders that the party needs to change its posture on immigration.
The aim of the Senate group is to draft an immigration bill by March and pass legislation in the Senate by August, said the aide, who was not authorized to discuss private deliberations and requested anonymity. The Republican-controlled House would also need to pass the legislation before it went to the White House for the president's signature.
For Obama, a successful push on immigration reform would be a promise kept to the Latino community after he disappointed many by failing to act on the issue in his first term, and it could be central to his legacy. The president met with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus at the White House Friday to discuss his upcoming proposals.
Following the meeting, lawmakers emphasized the need to act quickly.
"The time to act on comprehensive immigration reform is now," said Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif. "I remain hopeful that my colleagues in Congress can do the right thing and work together to produce legislation that secures our borders, reunites broken families and humanely treats the more than 11 million individuals who want nothing more than (to) achieve the American dream."
Obama pledged to make overhauling the system a top second-term priority.
"I think we have talked about it long enough," Obama said during an interview with NBC's "Meet the Press" in December. "We know how we can fix it. We can do it in a comprehensive way that the American people support. That's something we should get done."
Administration officials say Obama's second-term immigration push will continue the principles he outlined during his first four years in office. The basis for the president's plan is expected to be his 2011 immigration reform "blueprint," which calls for a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants, increased border security, mandatory penalties for businesses that employ unauthorized immigrants and improvements to the legal immigration system.
"What he hopes is that that dynamic has changed," White House spokesman Jay Carney said of Obama. "And there are certainly indications now that what was once a bipartisan effort to push forward with comprehensive immigration reform will again be a bipartisan effort to do so."
For Republicans, tackling immigration reform could be a way to broaden their appeal among Latino voters who are increasingly key to presidential elections. Latino voters accounted for 10 percent of the electorate in November, and 71 percent backed Obama over the 27 percent who voted for Romney.
In the Senate, lawmakers working on the effort include Democrats Charles Schumer of New York, Dick Durbin of Illinois and Robert Menendez of New Jersey; and Republicans John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Marco Rubio of Florida, according to Senate aides.
A few other lawmakers have also been involved, including Democrat Michael Bennet of Colorado and Republicans Jeff Flake of Arizona and Mike Lee of Utah. It's not clear whether all those involved will sign on to the principles the group hopes to roll out next week.
Details of the Senate proposals remain unclear, but the principles are expected to address a process toward legalizing the status of unauthorized immigrants already in the country; border security; verification measures for employers hiring workers and ways for more temporary workers to be admitted into the country.
On the path to citizenship, Schumer and Graham have in the past supported requiring illegal immigrants to admit they broke the law, perform community service, pay fines and back taxes, pass background checks and learn English before going to the back of the line of immigrants already in the system.
Several of the senators negotiating the immigration principles are veterans of the comprehensive immigration reform effort under then-President George W. Bush. That process collapsed in 2007 when it came up well-short of the needed votes in the Senate, a bitter outcome for Bush and the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the Democrats' leader on the legislation.
Some Republicans still lament that result as a missed opportunity for the party that could have set the GOP on a different path to reach more Latino voters.
Rubio is a relative newcomer to Senate negotiations on the issue, but he's seen as a rising star in his party and a potential 2016 presidential candidate. As a charismatic young Hispanic leader, his proposals on immigration have attracted wide notice in recent weeks. And as a conservative favorite, unlike McCain or Graham, his stamp of approval could be critical to drawing in other conservative lawmakers.
A Republican aide said that Rubio has made clear in his interactions with the group that he couldn't sign on to proposals that deviated from the principles he himself has been laying out in recent media interviews, including border security first, a guest-worker program, more visas for high-tech workers and enforcement in the workplace. As for the illegal immigrants already in the country, Rubio would have them pay a fine and back taxes, show they have not committed crimes, prove they've been in the country for some time and speak some English and apply for permanent residency. Ultimately, citizenship, too, could be in reach, but only after a process that doesn't nudge aside immigrants already in line, and Rubio hasn't provided details on how long it all might take.
The aide was not authorized to discuss private deliberations and requested anonymity in order to describe them.
An open question for the Senate group has been whether Obama would release an actual bill or just his own principles. Republicans in the group tend to believe that a bill handed down by the White House could seriously complicate the process, spooking the GOP by coming off as a purely political move, since a White House-written bill would have little chance of actually passing.
The White House and Senate Democrats favor addressing immigration through one broad package of legislation, while some Republicans lawmakers prefer to tackle the issue through several separate bills.