Sense of gloom deepens among Dems over immigration reform's prospects

The White House and some of its allies on Wednesday expressed deepening gloom over the prospects that President Obama will sign a comprehensive immigration bill this year. 

While the leadership of the Republican-controlled House deliberated in a closed-door session on how to handle the hot-button legislation, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney signaled that passing the measure through the House could be difficult.

“It’s always been an uphill battle,” Carney said about the prospects of the bill passing the House. “Hard things are hard.”

Democrats on the Hill, eager to pass comprehensive reform, also telegraphed a message of skepticism on Wednesday.

A senior Democratic aide said, “things have clearly unraveled in the past couple of days,” even though some lawmakers had been “slightly cautiously optimistic” about passing a comprehensive bill.

“The thing is, we could pass most of the Senate bill with Democrats and moderate Republicans but if the Speaker isn’t going to allow it to come to the floor, it’s pretty much over,” the aide said, referring to Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerTrump's pick for Federal Reserve chief is right choice at right time The two-party system is dying — let’s put it out of its misery One year later, neither party can get past last year's election MORE (R-Ohio). “This bill could pass but it likely won’t.”

“If I were betting on this, I’d say it’s not looking good. Not at all,” the aide added. “If anything passes it’s going to be some watered-down bill beefing up border security agents or something along those lines.”

Democratic lawmakers also expressed doubt that the measure could clear the House.

"I've been pessimistic from the very beginning," said Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.) "I just know how difficult it is to find consensus on this."

Obama held a meeting with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus on Wednesday to discuss strategy on how they could shoehorn the legislation through the House.

In the hour-and-a-half long meeting, Obama told lawmakers that he was relying on them to help carry the bill through the House, according to attendees in the room. 

During the meeting lawmakers strategized on which lawmakers would support the bill and how they could get community groups and businesses to work on the issue.

He basically told us, 'I'm relying on you to get this done," one lawmaker in the meeting said.

Still, the lawmaker added, "It's clear he wants to get this done but it's hard for me to gauge whether he thinks it can get done."

But Rep. Luis GutierrezLuis Vicente GutierrezPelosi: Impeaching Trump 'not someplace I think we should go' No room for amnesty in our government spending bill Puerto Rico mayor fumes after GOP postpones hearing MORE (D-Ill.), who attended the meeting, pushed back hard against the notion that reform is dead in Congress this year. 

He argued that the debate was always going to be fierce – and will likely become more heated in the coming weeks – but the storyline that reform is going nowhere, he suggested, is the construct of an impatient media.

"You know how this place is: whatever's hot today, next week it's dead. You guys love it. Your favorite story is, 'It died,'" Gutierrez told a group of chuckling reporters in the Capitol. 

"The reason that you're laughing is [because] you're going, 'Yeah, I wrote that one.'"

Still, Gutierrez, a CHC member who's negotiating a long-awaited bipartisan House package, also said Obama must become more vocal if reform is to pass Congress this year. 

He was quick to discourage the president from attacking Republicans while promoting reform – "I didn't say to use the bully pulpit to beat anybody up" – but emphasized  "there are things [Obama] can do" that others simply can't.”

"Who is the one person uniquely situated to keep this issue in the public light?" Gutierrez asked.

Gutierrez noted that he's been traveling all over the country to promote a comprehensive reform bill. "But, come on," he added, "I'm not the president of the United States. He can really do this, I believe, in a much more effective way

Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), another attendee of Wednesday's meeting, said Obama told the lawmakers that his hands-off approach through the early stages of the debate has been an intentional strategy not to poison the well. 

But Grijalva also suggested that the president's detached approach is about to change.

"I think he's going to help frame it at a national level and use the pulpit," Grijalva said.

Rep. Ruben HinojosaRuben HinojosaTurning the tables to tackle poverty and homelessness in rural America Ethics: Lawmakers didn’t ‘knowingly’ break rules with Azerbaijan gifts Dems heap praise on Pelosi for trade moves MORE (D-Texas), the chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC), said Obama and the Democrats all recognize the dilemma facing John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerTrump's pick for Federal Reserve chief is right choice at right time The two-party system is dying — let’s put it out of its misery One year later, neither party can get past last year's election MORE

The Speaker is caught between conservative opponents of comprehensive reform in his own conference and national GOP leaders who support the effort to attract more Hispanic voters.

"The challenge," Hinojosa said, "is to help the Speaker of the House find a way to bring a bipartisan bill to the House [floor]."

Asked how the Democrats intend to do that, however, Hinojosa offered no strategies.

"I would get $1 million if I knew the answer," he said.

At the White House on Wednesday, Carney said Obama is “keenly interested” in seeing the legislation move forward.

The White House will undertake a "larger, more visible effort" in the coming weeks, according to aides. That outreach is expected to include meetings with business and religious leaders, the officials said.

A White House official said Wednesday that it was "possible" that the president would travel and hold campaign-style events to support immigration reform, but emphasized that it was merely one option under consideration.

"He may travel, but there's nothing scheduled," the official said.

While Carney and other White House aides publicly signaled that passing the legislation wouldn’t be easy, a former senior administration official who is familiar with the White House strategy on immigration predicted that the process is “not over by a long stretch.”

“The pressure [on Republicans to act] is not going to lessen, it’s only going to get more intense,” the former official said.

The former official predicted that Obama would step up in the coming weeks to ensure passage of the legislation.

“He campaigned on this issue,” the former official said. “It’s a good time to move back to that kind of aggressive posture.”

Justin Sink contributed to this report.