By Mike Lillis - 07/23/13 03:03 PM EDT
House Democratic leaders warned Tuesday that Congress must enact immigration reform this year because the task becomes much more difficult in the 2014 election year.
"You hope that we can get things done next year, whether or not there's an election at hand. We should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time.
"But there's no doubt that the closer you get to elections, the more members of Congress attention turns to their reelection," he added, "and this is just too important an issue to let go."
Rep. Joe Crowley (N.Y.), vice chairman of the Caucus, echoed that message.
"When we get into election mode it does become more difficult to attack the major issues, more controversial issues," Crowley said.
"Some have suggested we should leave [the issue] for the elections, for the electorate to decide, but I think they already have done that. And poll after poll has indicated that they want us to act … in a comprehensive way."
Leaders on both sides of the aisle say they remain optimistic that an immigration reform deal can make it to the president's desk this year, but they're running out of time to do it.
Congress leaves Washington on Aug. 2 for a five-week August vacation. The House has scheduled only nine legislative days in September, when much of the political oxygen will be consumed by efforts to fund the federal government before the fiscal year ends on Sept. 30.
Afterward, lawmakers will have to work out a deal to raise the nation's debt ceiling, which is expected to hit its limit sometime in the middle of the fall. The load of heavy lifts on fiscal issues has left some observers wondering when lawmakers will have the time to wrap up an immigration deal before the end of the year.
Although the Senate last month passed a comprehensive immigration reform package with a bipartisan vote of 68-32, opposition to such a proposal is more entrenched in the House, where the GOP majority is sharply divided on the issue.
Becerra said Democrats have hoped to work in a bipartisan manner to pass a separate House bill, but will begin clamoring for the Senate package if GOP leaders don't move soon.
"At some point, if we can't see our Republican colleagues making any moves to actually deal with the broken immigration system in a comprehensive way, that it wouldn't surprise me if you don't see Democrats get out there pretty quickly talking about, 'At least give us a chance to vote on the Senate bill,' " Becerra said.
"We can get it done this year, we should get it done this year, and my hope is that bipartisanly we will get it done this year," he added.