ObamaCare steals spotlight from push on immigration

Anne Wernikoff

The troubled rollout of the healthcare law has thrown a wrench into President Obama’s push for immigration reform.

The White House and reform advocates in both parties have sought to refocus attention back to immigration following the 16-day government shutdown, but the problems plaguing the new federal insurance exchange website have dominated headlines.

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The White House is getting a boost from a coalition of 600 faith, law enforcement and business leaders that plan to descend Tuesday on Capitol Hill to urge the House to take up immigration legislation before the end of the year.

“We’ve got to get Congress and the American public to focus on immigration because we’ve got such a short time to get it on the floor,” said Rep. Jeff Denham (Calif.), who over the weekend became the first Republican to sign on to a comprehensive immigration bill similar to the measure that passed the Senate in June.

Denham said he hopes other Republicans will announce their support in the coming days, which could give fresh momentum to the legislative push that is central to Obama’s second-term agenda.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has yet to bring an immigration bill to the floor, and there is no indication he would do so in the five legislative weeks that remain on the House schedule in 2013. A bipartisan immigration group  in the House collapsed in September when two Republicans left, citing a lack of trust in the Obama administration.

“We lost some time because of the shutdown,” said Randy Johnson, senior vice president at the Chamber of Commerce, which is participating in Tuesday’s “fly-in” lobbying visit. “There still is time on the House’s schedule to take up some immigration bills,” he said.

Yet the administration’s attention — and message — is clearly divided.

The White House has been inundated with questions about the buggy HealthCare.gov, the House has begun investigations, and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has launched a daily press briefing to update the public on efforts to fix the website.

The setback is a familiar one for immigration reform advocates, who have seen the issue be upended by three separate crises in recent months: the debate over military intervention in Syria, the government shutdown and now the implementation of the healthcare law.

“It is getting overshadowed,” said Julian Zelizer, a political scientist at Princeton University. “It’s taking up time, and it is consuming the president’s attention,” he said of the healthcare rollout.

Obama will travel to Massachusetts on Wednesday to deliver a speech on healthcare.

Advocates in and outside of Congress are urging the House to act in some way on immigration before the end of the year, even if it is only on piecemeal legislation that would have to be reconciled with the Senate bill.

They have long feared that once the calendar turns to 2014, jump-starting immigration reform will be next to impossible as attention shifts to the midterm election campaigns.

“There’s a window here to move some bills before they go out, helping to set the stage for completing the process early next year and getting it done next year,” Johnson told reporters. “I don’t think that it’s the end of the world if they can’t get it all done by early February, but sure, once you start getting into April or May, you start running out of time.”

Denham said the imperative was to “get something off the House floor so we can get to conference before the end of the year.”

Boehner has ruled out taking up the Senate bill or any comprehensive measure. He has said he is “hopeful” the House can act on immigration, but for months, he has resisted taking a heavy hand in directing a path forward for a conference that remains dominated by conservatives.

“He is reaching a point where it’s going to be hard to keep dragging this out,” Zelizer said.