The 3 Big Hurdles Obama Has to Clear to Pass Immigration Reform

Advocates, lobbyists, and wonks are now convinced Congress will try to tackle the issue. But they still know that any bill will have to run a gauntlet.

Keith Bedford/Reuters

This is actually happening. That's the viewpoint of Capitol Hill aides, lobbyists, advocates, and politicians who have been involved in the immigration debate for 10, 20, and in some cases 30 years. They are psyched. They are scared. They are sober.

They miss the late Senator Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., who has been at the forefront of every immigration law since 1965. They are grateful for Senator Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who has spurred a new way of thinkingabout immigration among conservatives.

This account is based on interviews with more than a dozen people close to the immigration talks on Capitol Hill and in the White House.

President Obama's speech on Tuesday in Nevada will mark the public unveiling of private planning that has been in the works at the White House and in Congress for at least a year. Administration officials have mulled every possible option for easing the paradox of too many illegal immigrants and a stilted legal system. The only real solution is broad legislation.

No one knows how it will end. The public statements from Obama and a group of bipartisan senators will reflect a possible resolution to years of conflict and confusion. The contours of the deal are so simple that a Martian visiting the United States would wonder why politicians have been fighting about it for 15 years. There will be some type of earned legalization for illegal immigrants, an ironclad way for employers to verify that their employees are legal, a smooth visa system for future immigrants, and robust border security.

Everyone with a stake in the outcome fears that a misstep on the part of one political party will offend the other party and blow up the deal. Two old hands at the debate, Senators John McCain, R-Ariz., and Robert Menendez, D-N.J., were extremely careful on ABC's This Week on Sunday talking about immigration. McCain said he wanted Obama's help. Menendez said Obama would work with Republicans. Liberals fear that Obama will be too dictatorial when he spells out his immigration reform plan. If his tone isn't deferential enough, it could alienate Republicans whose support is needed for anything to pass. Conservatives fear that Democrats don't actually want an immigration reform bill and would rather make Republicans look bad by alienating Hispanics.

Whatever happens, it will play out in a big way. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has designated immigration legislation with the bill number S.1, a signal the bill is the top Senate priority. (He did the same thing for Obama's health-care bill.) The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to begin crafting it in February. It should be on the Senate floor in May or June.

Lengthy congressional debates of this sort are public and messy. Drafters of the bill will have their hands full keeping the amendment process from sinking the effort. The White House will need to keep up the pressure without scaring away skittish Republicans. It's a delicate dance that has never been attempted without Kennedy.

Advocates expect to lose at least five Democrats in the Senate, which means they will need upwards of a dozen Republicans to vote for the legislation. That's where Rubio and other Tea Party favorites like Senator Mike Lee of Utah will come into play. Rubio and Lee are newcomers to an old discussion among Republican veterans like McCain and Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. Newly elected Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona will be a key Republican player as well.

Conservative senators who want an immigration bill will be pitted against fellow conservatives who don't, like Senators Charles Grassley of Iowa, Jeff Sessions of Alabama, and David Vitter of Louisiana. To get past their own party's naysayers, Republicans could make demands that are unpleasant, if not unpalatable, for traditional Democrats.

Next comes the House, where Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., is in no hurry to rush any broad legislation. Goodlatte's main objective is much more modest -- to familiarize his committee members with immigration policy such that they understand the difference between a work visa and a green card. There are not enough Republican votes in the House to pass anything that would earn Obama's signature or the nod from Senate Democrats.

So how can a sweeping immigration bill actually pass? Supporters from both parties are acutely aware that missteps in a few crucial areas could derail the effort. But they also sense a new political reality pushed into sharp relief by November's election -- the stalemate on immigration has to end. Republican strategists want nothing more than to remove the issue from their plates. The only way that happens is if a bill passes.

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