Obama Wants To Pivot To Immigration Reform, But Can It Work?

The ink wasn't dry on the deal to reopen the government when the President turned his attention back to immigration. But what are the politics and prospects for an overhaul of the nation's immigration laws?

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It may be hard to believe, but the agenda here in Washington does include a few items beyond trading punches over the healthcare law and its troubled website. Near the top of the list is immigration reform. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports on the prospects for an overhaul of the nation's immigration laws.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: At the Capitol this morning, a group of young undocumented immigrants who want to join the military called on Congress to pass an immigration bill that would include a path to citizenship for illegal aliens.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We're here to tell Congress to let us serve, to let us serve in the only country that we know and we call home.

LIASSON: As soon as the shutdown standoff ended last week, President Obama said he too wants to return to immigration, one of his few remaining priorities that has even a chance of passage this term.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We should finish the job of fixing our broken immigration system. There's already a broad coalition across American that's behind this effort of comprehensive immigration reform, from business leaders to faith leaders to law enforcement.

LIASSON: And unlike the healthcare law, the president's number one achievement in his first term, an immigration overhaul is actually popular with strong majorities across both parties. A comprehensive bill passed the Senate by a big bipartisan margin, but in the House there's been little movement. On Monday, at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast, Chamber of Commerce head Tom Donohue said the business community will push the House to take up the issue.

TOM DONOHUE: The Chamber is keeping up the push for reform. It's an opportunity to show the world we can get a big thing done that we can all benefit from.

LIASSON: After the political damage the Republicans suffered from the shutdown, immigration reform advocates like Frank Sharry says it's in Republicans interests to work with the Senate on immigration.

FRANK SHARRY: I think the pro-shutdown politics makes immigration reform more likely. There's a real demand within the Republican caucus from some that they can do more than shut down the government and threaten the world economy, and so those voices are saying, what can we do in a bipartisan basis that shows we can do big things?

And immigration reform is the issue that's waiting to be grabbed by them.

LIASSON: That could be wishful thinking on the part of a passionate reform advocate because many House Republicans say the shutdown battle made it harder to pass comprehensive immigration legislation. At a recent Heritage Foundation event, Idaho Republican Raul Labrador said the president's hard line during the shutdown has left Republicans with even more distrust toward Mr. Obama.

REP. RAUL LABRADOR: I think it would be crazy for the House Republican leadership to enter into negotiations with him on immigration, and I'm a proponent of immigration reform. So I think what he has done over the last two and a half weeks, he's trying to destroy the Republican Party, and I think that anything that we do right now with this president on immigration will be with that same goal in mind.

LIASSON: Representative Luis Gutierrez, a leading Democratic advocate for immigration legislation, went to the House floor this morning with a message for Republicans who share Labrador's feelings.

REP. LUIS GUTIERREZ: Don't think of it as working with President Obama if it makes it easier for you. Think of it as doing your job. Think of it as working on behalf of the American people. Not for an Obama solution, not for a Tea Party solution, but for an American solution.

LIASSON: Today, House Speaker John Boehner said he's hopeful the House will act this year on immigration in the form of a series of small bills addressing specific problems. But as Republican consultant David Winston points out, there are now a lot of other issues on the table for Congress. There's the ACA rollout hearings and the budget negotiations working against the next set of deadlines to raise the debt ceiling and fund the government.

And there's the number one priority for Americans: an economic recovery that continues to be very weak.

DAVID WINSTON: A lot of our members are hearing, tell me what you're doing in terms of the economy first. Give me a clear picture of where that's going to go. And the president, to some degree, wants to go to his priority as opposed to where the country's really at at this point.

LIASSON: And one thing the shutdown standoff didn't change at all is the political calculus of most House Republicans. An immigration overhaul is not an urgent priority for them in the 2014 election cycle because most House Republicans serve safe conservative districts with few Hispanic voters. But in 2015, when Republicans turn their attention to a presidential election where they'll face a national electorate that's getting younger and browner by the day, then the price for failing to pass immigration reform will be much, much higher.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, the White House.

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