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.
"I'm sure the civil libertarians will object to some kind of biometric card -- although . . . there'll be all kinds of protections -- but we're going to have to do it. It's the only way," Schumer said. "The American people will never accept immigration reform unless they truly believe their government is committed to ending future illegal immigration."
By announcing his plans, Schumer, who chairs the Senate's main immigration subcommittee, ushered in what Obama has signaled will be his next major legislative campaign, after the economic stimulus plan, health care and energy.
Schumer said legislation should secure control of the nation's borders within a year and require that an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants register with the government and "submit to a rigorous process to convert to legal status" or face immediate deportation. Rejecting the euphemism "undocumented workers," he said: "Illegal immigration is wrong -- plain and simple."
A senior White House official said Obama is open to all of Schumer's proposals, including his ID plan, saying that "he wants to listen, he wants to talk. All of it is on the table."
Hispanic leaders and immigrant advocates have pressed Obama to fulfill a campaign pledge to tackle the issue this year. In response, House and Senate Democratic leaders voiced new optimism this week that a deal can be struck before election season heats up next spring.
"I think we have the floor votes to do it," Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) told reporters Tuesday. House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) added that action could begin "as early, perhaps, as this fall."
Despite the congressional pledge, White House aides have worked to lower expectations about today's meeting, noting Congress's inability to deliver legislation to former president George W. Bush in 2006 and 2007, and vowing to proceed with debate this year only with strong bipartisan support.
"The president wants to make it clear he is serious," a senior White House official said yesterday. "He also wants to make it clear he's going to need strong partnership and leadership on both sides of the aisle to get the right policies moving."
Key Republicans reacted cautiously, saying they would work with Obama if he thinks a deal is possible.
"What we need now is not another photo op at the White House," Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.), the ranking Republican on Schumer's panel, said Tuesday. "What we need is a plan from the president of the United States."
In pushing Congress to tackle the subject for the third time in four years, advocates say a bigger Democratic majority, Republican unease over the party's waning support from Hispanics and public demand for solutions will deliver a filibuster-proof 60 votes in the Senate.
But the plan faces obstacles, opponents said, including rising competition for jobs in a collapsing economy, and continued resistance to granting "amnesty" to illegal immigrants.
"Every Democrat that's in a competitive district knows that will be the question next year: Why did they vote for more foreign workers while 14 million workers are unemployed?" said Roy Beck, founder of NumbersUSA, a group that advocates for limiting immigration.
Also unclear is what backing might come from business groups. Schumer's priorities did not include expanding a guest-worker program, which employers sought. Instead, Schumer said that any deal must also create mechanisms to attract highly skilled immigrants, control the flow of low-skilled immigrants and protect native-born workers.
A system to access legal workers "is non-negotiable from a business point of view," said Tamara Jacoby, president of the ImmigrationWorks USA lobby, adding: "But we're open to a discussion of what that legal mechanism should be."