WASHINGTON - The punishing battle over healthcare is still unresolved, but the Obama administration is quietly laying plans to take up another issue that could generate even more controversy and political division—a major overhaul of the nation's immigration system.
Already, senior White House aides have privately assured Latino activists that the president will back legislation in 2010 to provide a road to citizenship for the estimated 12 million undocumented workers now living in the United States.
In a conference call with proponents, White House deputy chief of staff Jim Messina, political director Patrick Gaspard and others recently delivered the message that the White House is committed to seeing a substantial immigration bill pass and wants to make sure allies are prepared for the fight.
In addition to the citizenship provision, the emerging plan will stress increased efforts to harden borders to make illegal entry more difficult. But that two-track approach has been rejected in the past by Republicans and other critics who insisted a border crackdown demonstrate its effectiveness before any action on citizenship could be considered.
As recently as the George W. Bush administration, efforts to win congressional approval for coupling the two issues were repeatedly stymied. And whatever proposal Obama eventually puts forward is likely to trigger equally determined opposition, especially with next November's congressional elections looming.
That makes embracing an immigration bill a significant gamble for the White House, which already has job creation, global warming curbs, and new regulations for financial institutions on the agenda for 2010.
Adding to the difficulty, polls show that the public is far more worried about the 10% unemployment rate and the fragile economy than anything else. By pushing an immigration bill, Obama risks appearing out of step with the everyday worries of the typical voter.
Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster, said the issue is difficult in virtually any environment.
"We know from a lot of experience that immigration reform has been and can be a very polarizing issue. There are heated differences about whether there ought to be some kind of pathway to citizenship for people who entered the country illegally," he said.
"And my sense from the public opinion research is people care more about vindicating their position than they do about getting the issue solved.'' But the White House has apparently decided to press ahead, with Homeland Security secretary Janet Napolitano designated to lead the effort. She has begun talking privately with lawmakers in an effort to hash out a strategy.
In an effort to enlist the kind of support from business groups that helped drive its healthcare initiative, the White House has also reached out to the National Restaurant Association, which represents an industry that employs thousands of immigrants, asking if they could be counted on as an ally.
Earlier this year, the new head of the association, Dawn Sweeney, met with Cecilia Munoz, a White House aide involved in the issue, and expressed interest in cooperating.
"It's an extremely important issue for our members," Sweeney said. Her association could be a force in exerting grassroots pressure on lawmakers.
As a presidential candidate, Obama vowed to take up immigration in his first year in office. It's now too late to make good on that commitment.
If they delay once more, Obama and congressional Democrats could anger the Latino voters who came out in force for them in 2008. Exit polls show Obama won two-thirds of the Latino vote in the 2008 election compared to 31% for his Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain.
No one anticipates that a core element of the Democratic base will defect to the Republican Party next November. But even a significant drop in turnout – which often happens anyway in non-presidential elections—could frustrate Democratic efforts to preserve their congressional majority.
"The bulk of the people needing immigration reform are Latino,'' said U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ). "It was a major motivating issue during the election. … There's a level of disenchantment about where we're going. There's some frustration and disappointment, and if you don't give the Latino community a reason to participate (in the elections) you weaken your base even more.''
Unlike healthcare, which has played out over most of a year, an immigration bill would be constrained by a tight deadline next year. For a bill to have a realistic shot of passing, political analysts say, the particulars would have to be hashed out and agreed upon by next spring.
Delay would increase the likelihood of the issue getting derailed by the November elections.
Henry Cisneros, a former cabinet secretary in Bill Clinton's administration who took part in the conference call with the White House, said: "It gets much more difficult as the year goes along. So everyone has to be very sober about the prospects. But the president and congressional leadership understand it's important to start the ball rolling."
"It was clear that the administration intends to put this in the first rank of their legislative priorities in 2010,'' he said.
An immigration bill was introduced in the House earlier in the month and Sen. Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat who chairs a subcommittee on immigration, is heading the effort to cobble together a coalition in the Senate.
Bipartisan support is possible. Schumer's office said he is working with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) to develop a bill and wants Graham to sign on as a co-sponsor. Graham's office did not return calls for comment.
Democrats may not have a lock on one prominent Republican who wanted to revamp the immigration system in the past: McCain, who backed George W. Bush's failed attempt to overhaul immigration in the second term. The Arizona senator has not committed to supporting the Obama bill, saying he worries that the president will not endorse a temporary guest worker program.
Organized labor, an important part of the Democratic base, has voiced opposition to a guest worker program under which more immigrant workers could enter the country on a temporary basis. Critics argue that there is no effective system for assuring that such workers leave the country when their entry permits expire.
"From everything that we hear right now, the temporary guest worker program won't be addressed in immigration reform. And unless that is an essential part of the reform program, it's something that Sen. McCain can't work on,'' said Brooke Buchanan, a spokeswoman for McCain.
The White House would not reveal its position on the issue of guest workers. A White House spokesman, Nick Shapiro, said in a prepared statement: "The president has asked secretary Napolitano to work with stakeholders and leaders on this issue in the House and Senate to move the legislative process forward on this important issue.''
Should an immigration bill gain traction, White House chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel would likely become a central player in the negotiations. Emanuel has had a long history with the issue.
As a young aide to Bill Clinton, Emanuel co-wrote a memo showing great concern for the political dynamics of immigration. Emanuel and Ron Klain, now the top aide to Vice President Joe Biden, wrote in 1994: "We must be seen as taking proper, forceful steps to seriously address the immigration problem without alienating the Hispanic and civil rights constituencies.
"Our goal is not to out-do the Republicans, rather to use our achievements and proposals to prevent them from using this as a wedge issue against us.'' The former head of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, Doris Meissner, recalls that she once received a phone call from Emanuel berating her over a news story about lax border enforcement in Arizona.
"This kind of press is killing us," Meissner recalled Emanuel saying , as he instructed her to send border agents to the area immediately. "He had no authority whatsoever to give me orders," she said. "My boss was the Attorney General."
But Emanuel was constantly pressing his White House colleagues to push what he termed a "balanced" immigration policy, which included both enforcement and stepped-up grants of citizenship.