By Russell Berman - 05/05/13 04:00 PM EDT
The push for immigration reform enters a crucial period when Congress returns this week, as Senate legislation faces the gauntlet of a committee mark-up and House negotiators try to complete their own long-awaited bill.
Senators took their legislation on the road during the congressional recess, and the pressure of conservative opposition appeared to yield early concessions from a key backer, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who said the bill likely couldn't pass the House and may need to be changed even to clear the Senate.
“Since my colleagues and I introduced immigration legislation, intense public scrutiny has helped identify shortcomings and unintended consequences that need to be addressed,” Rubio wrote Friday in an opinion article in the Wall Street Journal.
For President Obama, immigration reform remains his best hope for a major legislative achievement in his second term. He has watched the Senate block his push for new gun restrictions, and his meetings with Senate Republicans on the budget have yet to yield a significant breakthrough.
Playing the role of cheerleader instead of negotiator, the president has given Congress a wide berth to hammer out the details of immigration legislation. He has refused in recent days to weigh in on specific policy disputes, saying that as long as proposals meet his broad criteria he will support them.
“He’s been quite active behind the scenes but not so much in public,” said Brent Wilkes, executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens.
At a private White House meeting with Hispanic leaders this week ahead of his trip to Latin America, Obama discussed immigration reform only briefly, Wilkes said.
The president told the group that he would sign the Senate bill in its current form, and he urged the advocates to prioritize passage of the bill over pushing for changes to smaller policy items that could be addressed in future legislation.
“The priority should be to get the framework through,” Wilkes said, summarizing Obama’s message.
During a speech in Mexico City on Friday, Obama said he was “absolutely convinced” immigration reform could get done in 2013.
Republicans have welcomed the president’s limited role in the congressional process, arguing that deeper involvement could further antagonize conservative critics and overly politicize the legislative push.
“As of this point, he’s been irrelevant,” said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), one of eight lawmakers trying to negotiate a bipartisan immigration bill in the House. “He might be [relevant] in the future, but for now he isn’t.”
The Senate Judiciary Committee will begin marking up the legislation on Thursday, and at least three other Senate panels have scheduled hearings on the bill.
The legislation aims to enhance border security, create an agricultural guest-worker program, overhaul the legal immigration system and provide a path to citizenship for an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants.
Conservatives have criticized provisions in the bill that would grant provisional legal status to undocumented immigrants before the border security benchmarks are fully implemented.
Immigration reform advocates reacted cautiously to Rubio’s push to strengthen the border security component.
“The border security measures are tough, and in our view, excessive,” said Lynn Tramonte, deputy director of the America’s Voice Education Fund.
The provisions were the product of a compromise between Democrats and Republicans in the Gang of Eight, she noted. “If he’s talking about opening up that discussion, I think that would be a setback,” Tramonte said.
At the same time, advocates say they aren’t opposed to any changes to the measure. “Nobody ever claimed to have the perfect bill,” Tramonte said.
In the House, a bipartisan working group is hoping to finalize an agreement by the end of the month. Diaz-Balart declined to discuss the talks in detail but said the group is on track to have a deal in “the very near future” and that it would be a matter of “weeks, not months.”
An agreement on the scope of a guest-worker program has been holding up the House talks, and negotiators have claimed to be close to an agreement several times since the beginning of the year.
The uncertain outlook in the lower chamber has caused reform advocates to rally around the Senate bill in the hopes that a strong bipartisan vote would pressure House Republican leaders to accept that proposal or one very similar.
That was part of the message Obama delivered to Hispanic leaders at the White House, Wilkes said.
“That would be our preferred path, but I don’t know how realistic it is,” he said.
The House immigration working group is hoping its proposal, when completed, will be the legislative vehicle for the House to negotiate a compromise with the Senate in an eventual conference committee, if both chambers can pass legislation.
If the group can’t seal a deal, the House Judiciary Committee is expected to move individual pieces of immigration legislation, although those are unlikely to win support from advocates of a comprehensive overhaul.
Updated at 9:55 a.m. to correct the name of Brent Wilkes's group, the League of United Latin American Citizens.