President Obama told lawmakers Thursday he wants to sign an immigration bill this year or early next year even though they don’t have the votes yet to pass it — and just in case they fail, the administration is ramping up talk of other actions it’s taken to help immigrant rights.
Embracing yet another heavy lift for his legislative agenda, Mr. Obama convened an immigration summit at the White House and told members of Congress he will stand behind them as they try to craft a compromise. The lawmakers promised to fend off attacks from both sides of the political spectrum and craft a bill that cracks down on employers and legalizes illegal immigrants.
“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,” Mr. Obama said.
But it’s not clear whether much has changed since 2006 and 2007 — the last two times Congress tried to move an immigration bill. Each effort failed, including a bruising loss in 2007 when a bipartisan majority of senators joined a filibuster, urged on by a flood of phone calls and e-mails from voters.
“There’s been a shift in the people who sit in these seats [in Congress]. I don’t think the public has changed at all,” said Rep. Steve King of Iowa, the top Republican on the House immigration subcommittee, who was left out of the meeting.
Lawmakers at the summit agreed that the major sticking points remain: Voters don’t yet think enough has been done to enforce existing laws, labor unions don’t want a program to increase the flow of future workers, and businesses won’t support a bill that does not allow for more worker visas.
Mr. Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, a former member of Congress, told reporters they don’t yet have the votes to pass a bill.
“If the votes were there, you wouldn’t need to have a meeting. You’d go to a roll-call [vote],” he said.
He began to lay out the administration’s case for how much they’ve done for immigrant rights supporters even in the absence of a legalization bill: The children’s health care expansion bill Mr. Obama signed early in his term expanding coverage to include legal immigrant children; Mr. Obama on Thursday announcing steps to streamline the legal immigration process.
“It’s not like other issues relating to the immigrant community are not being dealt with,” he said.
Still, Mr. Obama said he is committing his administration to try to get a bill done. He tapped Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to work with members of Congress on a compromise.
Thursday’s meeting had been put off twice before, and a White House official at the time said it was supposed to be a small meeting of bipartisan leaders on both sides of the issue.
Instead, it included 30 lawmakers, and was almost entirely made up of lawmakers on the record supporting a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants — the portion of the plan that critics label amnesty. The group was mostly made up of Democrats, but among the Republicans was Sen. John McCain, Mr. Obama’s opponent in last year’s election, who led the 2006 and 2007 efforts.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said he didn’t have a reason why Mr. King was left out.
President Bush had a similar immigration summit in 2006 before his first effort at passing a bill, and his invitation list included only lawmakers who supported a path to citizenship. Mr. Obama’s list was somewhat more inclusive, though the ratio was heavily tilted in favor of the president’s own position.
Mr. Obama will have the advantage of having far more Democrats in Congress and they are more likely to be supportive than are Republicans. Democrats also argue the immigration issue has not helped Republicans in the past two elections.
Still, Mr. King said the issue doesn’t break down along party lines.
“There’s a lot of difference between ‘bipartisan’ and working out the differences between the two groups,” he said. “I’m a little tired of the people standing up for the rule of law being characterized as anti-immigrant. I don’t know anybody in this Congress who’s anti-immigrant.”