Emanuel Says Immigration Reform Bill Lacks Votes to Pass

By Michael D. Shear and Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, June 25, 2009; 5:27 PM

Just hours before President Obama hosted lawmakers for a discussion on immigration at the White House, Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel conceded that Obama and his allies on Capitol Hill do not have the votes to pass a comprehensive reform bill.

"If the votes were there, you wouldn't need to have the meeting. You could go to a roll call," Emanuel told reporters during an hour-long breakfast.

About 20 senators and House members met with Obama at the White House this afternoon for the discussion in the State Dining Room. Aides to the president said the meeting was intended to "launch a policy conversation by having an honest discussion about the issues and identifying areas of agreement and areas where we still have work to do."

The president is expected to announce administrative actions that the White House has already taken to chip away at the issues, including a modernization of computers that allow people to quickly see their immigration status. Officials said the White House hopes to begin the more controversial debate over a comprehensive approach to address illegal immigration later this year.

But Emanuel offered reporters a more realistic assessment, saying that while it is "not impossible" to get immigration reform done this year, it is more likely to be pushed off.

"It's not impossible to do it this year," he said. "Could you get it in this year? Yes. I think the more important thing is to get it started this year."

Responding to a question about the political implications for Democrats of delay, Emanuel said, "It's better that it happens politically. It's also better that we continue to focus on improving the economy."

Emanuel's assessment follows that of other White House officials, who have been telegraphing for weeks the legislative challenge that immigration reform presents. Press secretary Robert Gibbs made the point at a briefing last week. And Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.) echoed the sentiment recently.

"With this issue, it's 'Do we have the votes?' Hell, if we had the votes, we wouldn't be calling you," Gutierrez, a leading advocate of immigration changes, told the Wall Street Journal, referring to conversations he had with administration officials.

But a senior aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.)disputed the dire predictions. "The Senate passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill by a filibuster-proof margin and with strong bipartisan support in 2006, and we can do it again," spokesman Jim Manley said. "The White House should leave the vote counting to us."

Today's comments came after Senate Democrats yesterday outlined plans to overhaul the nation's immigration laws, including a requirement that all U.S. workers verify their identity through fingerprints or an eye scan.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) said a national system to verify work documents is necessary because Congress has failed to crack down on unscrupulous employers and illegal immigrants with fake documents.

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