Obama’s promised push on immigration sets up early test

Partisan divide remains on fixing ‘broken’ system

Despite the hopes of immigrant-rights advocates, it appears the election did not close the partisan divide on immigration.

That was highlighted on Thursday, the very first day of the new session, when Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, kicking off the 113th Congress, called for action on the thorny issue from the rostrum of the House. Her entire Democratic caucus gave her a standing ovation, but Republicans stayed in their seats, with few even bothering to applaud at all.

Whatever their feelings, the issue is coming their way.

President Obama, who strongly carried the Hispanic vote in his 2012 re-election drive, has vowed to push immigration early in the new year, comparing it to the all-consuming health care fight that dominated his first term in office.

“I’ve said that fixing our broken immigration system is a top priority. I will introduce legislation in the first year to get that done,” he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” program in December.

His vow to write a bill already puts him further ahead than he was in his first term, where he tried to prod Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, and Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, to strike a deal, but never wrote any legislation himself.

Writing a bill will require Mr. Obama to take a stand on many of the thorny issues that have halted debates in the past decade, including what to do about future workers.

Businesses want a stream of temporary workers who would return home after their time is up, while labor unions and immigrant-rights advocates say those workers should be allowed a path to citizenship, which would mean a sizable boost in overall immigration.

Polls regularly show most Americans want immigration levels kept the same or decreased.

Another difficulty is that Mr. Obama and Senate Democratic leaders want to handle the debate in one large bill — what they and advocates call “comprehensive immigration reform” — which would include legalization of illegal immigrants, border and interior enforcement and rewriting rules for the legal immigration system.

But House Speaker John A. Boehner said that’s not how the House will proceed.

“I’m not talking about a 3,000-page bill,” the Ohio Republican said at his first post-election news conference in November. “What I’m talking about is a common-sense, step-by-step approach that secures our borders, allows us to enforce our laws and fix our broken immigration system.”

He also declined to say whether he would push the House to accept a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

One key to the looming congressional immigration debate will be the group of Senate Democrats and one liberal independent, Vermont’s Bernard Sanders, who voted to block the bill the last time Congress debated a comprehensive reform push in 2007.

Of those 16 senators, 10 are still serving — and five of them are up for re-election in 2014, making them the ones to watch as lawmakers begin to circle around the thorny issue.

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