Reid Declares Immigration a Priority for Senate

By Ben Pershing
Washington Post Staff Writer

Saturday, June 6, 2009

With President Obama on a historic foreign trip, a Supreme Court nomination pending and massive health-care and climate change bills percolating in Congress, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) managed to draw headlines on a completely separate front Thursday: immigration.

At a news conference with Hispanic leaders to tout Sonia Sotomayor’s Supreme Court candidacy, Reid said a comprehensive immigration bill is “going to happen this session, but I want it this year, if at all possible.” Reid called it one of his three top priorities this year, along with health care and energy.

His comments drew renewed attention to the immigration issue, which has been largely dormant on Capitol Hill since a comprehensive reform measure failed in the Senate in 2007. Despite the hopes of Reid and other advocates, however, with Congress and the White House preoccupied with a packed legislative calendar, immigration reform looks unlikely to pass this year.

House Democratic leaders have already said they want the Senate to move on immigration first, and the Senate can take weeks to process a major bill. Both chambers have to grapple with a full complement of issues this year, including the usual slate of appropriations bills as well as the health-care and energy measures, both of which will be controversial.

Brent Wilkes, the national executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens, was standing with Reid on Thursday and said he understands why Democrats are not committing to a firm timetable. “They’re cautious about the immigration bill, because things have a tendency to slip in Washington,” he said.

Last summer, candidate Barack Obama pledged on a LULAC questionnaire, “I will put comprehensive immigration reform back on the nation’s agenda during my first year in office.” The White House is hosting a meeting of key lawmakers and advocacy groups to discuss immigration June 17, but the administration has given no hint of an intensified push on the issue. Administration aides have said repeatedly that Obama wants to “start the debate this year,” but the president has not asked for a bill to sign in 2009.

Obama himself said in April, “We want to move this process,” before adding that he does not “have control of the legislative calendar.”

Reid does, and his spokesman, Jim Manley, said yesterday he thinks an immigration bill could pass the Senate this year, though he acknowledged the agenda is packed. “It’s an ambitious schedule, but it’s doable with a little bit of cooperation” from Republicans, he said.

But there is little evidence that such cooperation is forthcoming or that any consensus is forming around a compromise bill, so Republicans do not think moving a measure this year is realistic.

“The real estate is rapidly shrinking,” said Don Stewart, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). “Although we can always do more on border security, there are still a number of unresolved issues before the Congress that are going to take us well into the latter part of the year.”

Despite those obstacles, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) has said he plans to draft and introduce a new immigration measure later this year. Wilkes said that would get the ball rolling, and that 2010 is a more likely target for final action on the issue.

“I think spring is realistic,” he said.