US Chamber gives Republicans cover on immigration overhaul

Republicans who are calling for action on comprehensive immigration reform have the nation’s largest business lobby in their corner.

An official with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said the group is hopeful that an overhaul of the immigration system can make it to President Obama’s desk by the end of 2013. 

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“The Chamber is certainly hopeful that we can get it done within the year,” Chamber Senior Vice President Randy Johnson told The Hill. “It’s always been important to the Chamber and it will be a priority for us.”

The powerful group has long supported comprehensive immigration reform and could provide Republicans political cover for backing a bill that includes some pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

There has been renewed talk in both parties about a bipartisan overhaul of the immigration system following Republicans’ thumping at the polls with Latino and Asian-American voters. 

Conservative pundits such as Sean Hannity and Charles Krauthammer have shifted to embrace a broad-based solution, and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) last week said a “comprehensive approach” was “long overdue.”

President Obama, who before winning reelection had named immigration reform a second-term priority, called for “fixing our immigration system” in his post-election victory speech last week. Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) have restarted talks on a framework for immigration reform.

The Chamber was heavily involved in the unsuccessful 2005 and 2006 efforts by President George W. Bush to overhaul the immigration system, and it worked with an unconventional coalition of unions, and religious and Hispanic groups to push for changes to the law.

Johnson said the Chamber is re-

engaging with those groups in order to push forward on the issue and hopes that Congress and the president will tackle it after they resolve the “fiscal cliff” crisis.

“We’re going to be building our alliances with our normal allies on this: The unions, evangelical [Christian] groups are getting engaged on this. There’s a three-day rally with the National Immigration Forum in early December, and we’ll be doing visits on the Hill with members,” he said.

Johnson is not the only longtime reform advocate who says major movement is possible on immigration. Alfonso Aguilar, the executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles and a former official in George W. Bush’s White House, said some kind of overhaul is “inevitable” at this point.

“It’s going to happen. The question is, how far are we going to get?” Aguilar told The Hill. “The key question is, will there be a path to citizenship for some? I think some members are willing to allow for some type of legalization.”

Johnson predicted that the Senate would be the first to act on a bill, because there is more Republican support for immigration reform there than in the House.

“I would expect that the Senate would go first on anything that’s broad at all,” he said. “The bottom line is anything that passes in the House is going to be narrower than the Senate, but the two can go to conference together. I think anything comprehensive would move in the Senate first.”

Aguilar concurred and said he was much more worried about what might happen in the House. There has already been blowback against Boehner’s comments, with conservative Republicans such as Reps. Steve King (R-Iowa) and John Fleming (R-La.) warning the Speaker against pushing forward on immigration.

“The Senate is going to be easier,” Aguilar said. “In the House there may be some fights, internal or external, and that’s where Boehner has to be really, really strong.”