"Obama presses for immigration overhaul" from the Orange County Register
The president tells legislators he wants action by early next year.
By Dena Bunis and Jessica Terrell for the Orange County Register --
President Barack Obama on Thursday jump-started the immigration debate by meeting with a bipartisan group of lawmakers who are key to any bill's passage and telling them he wants something done late this year or early in 2010.
"There is not by any means consensus across the table," Obama said after the session with about 30 Democrats and Republicans from the House and Senate. "But what I'm encouraged by is that after all the overheated rhetoric and the occasional demagoguery on all sides around this issue, we've got a responsible set of leaders sitting around the table who want to actively get something done and not put it off until a year, two years, three years, five years from now."
Obama didn't fool himself that getting agreement on this issue would be easy. Even his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, said Thursday at a breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor that the "votes aren't there for immigration reform. If the votes were there you wouldn't need to have the meeting."
Rep. Loretta Sanchez, who leads the House subcommittee on the border, said this meeting was more than window dressing.
"It did have substance," said Sanchez, D-Garden Grove. The lawmakers in the room were mostly the leaders and ranking GOP members of such committees as Judiciary and Homeland Security, which will have jurisdiction over any comprehensive immigration bill.
Sanchez said Obama didn't get into legislative details, especially about how to overcome the Republican and Democratic divide on such issues as dealing with the 12 million illegal immigrants who live in the United States or on whether to establish a program for new foreign temporary workers.
"When someone brought up a detail it got tense in the room," Sanchez said. "Obama was very cool and calm."
The president said a fix of the immigration system needs to include "tightening up our borders or cracking down on employers who are using illegal workers in order to drive down wages. And we need an effective way to recognize and legalize the status of undocumented workers who are here."
Obama didn't say whether there should be a new temporary worker program. One was included in the failed 2006 and 2007 Senate immigration bills. During the 2007 debate, Obama signed on to an amendment that would have stripped a temporary worker program from the bill. Organized labor adamantly opposes such a provision; business strongly favors one. The issue will likely be as major a flashpoint in the debate as the question of how to deal with the illegal immigrants now here.
"I can't support any proposal that doesn't have a legal temporary worker program," said Sen. John McCain, RAriz., a coauthor with Sen. Edward Kennedy, DMass., of the 2006 comprehensive bill.
Sanchez said lawmakers will have to address the temporary-worker question in order to get a bill passed. Some Democrats and labor leaders are floating the idea of an independent commission to decide when and whether to allow new temporary workers into the country.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, said Thursday that the Senate needs to go first on an immigration overhaul but that she's ready to bring the matter to the floor once it does.
Sanchez said she thinks Pelosi said that because before putting House members in the position of having to vote on the tough issue, she wants to know the Senate has the votes to pass something.
The Senate went first in 2006 and 2007, and both times leaders were unable to get the votes needed to pass a bill.
Sen. Mel Martinez, RFla., has supported a comprehensive bill. But he said after emerging from the White House that getting something done this year would be difficult.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, DCalif., was more optimistic.
"I think a lot has been achieved, and I think if we are able to put forward a system that has strong controls in it, that does stop illegal immigration while providing a pathway to citizenship for people who are here and could be good citizens, then I think we can solve the problem," she said.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, who has been crusading against illegal immigration for years, gave Obama points for holding the meeting but said he doesn't think a bill will pass in this Congress.
"No matter how hard the president tries, and I give him credit for trying, this issue is a polarizing issue, and it's hard to compromise on whether an illegal alien should be here or not," said Rohrabacher, R-Huntington Beach.
Rep. Ed Royce,R-Fullerton, said he was disappointed not to be at the meeting and that Democrats heavily outnumbered Republicans.
"It signals a desire on the part of the administration to work with their allies to try to enact an amnesty bill and to do it principally working with those who are already in agreement in term of offering that amnesty," said Royce,who this week voted against a homeland security appropriations bill because he thought its border security measures were too weak.
After the meeting, the president said Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano will establish a working group to work with Congress to move the issue forward.
On Wednesday, immigration advocates said they wanted to hear a plan of action from the president.
"My fear in approaching this meeting was that there was going to be a decision not to engaging the debate at all, but to postpone it, said Bishop Jaime Soto, who left Orange County to lead the Sacramento diocese. "So I am encouraged that Obama understands the importance of addressing this issue at this time."