WASHINGTON A leading advocate of efforts to overhaul U.S. immigration law said Monday that the Republican-led U.S. House of Representatives is unlikely to act on the issue until at least early next year, which could complicate its chances of passing Congress.
Bruce Josten, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's top lobbyist, said the House probably won't pass its version of an immigration overhaul at a time when fiscal issues continue to dominate Congress' agenda.
"I think it would be very unlikely," Josten said during an appearance at the Reuters Washington Summit.
Now that Congress has temporarily resolved its latest budget fight, Democratic President Barack Obama has said he plans to make a renewed push on immigration, one of his top domestic priorities and a rare issue on which there is some bipartisan desire for action.
Obama has pressed the House to finish work on immigration before the end of the year, before lawmakers turn their attention to the November 2014 congressional elections and become less willing to take a stand on divisive social issues.
Even if the House were to act this year, it and the U.S. Senate still would have to resolve differences in their plans before sending a final bill to Obama for his signature.
A sweeping bill passed the Democrat-controlled Senate with bipartisan support in June.
The measure faces a trickier path in the House, where many conservative Republicans are reluctant to back any measure that provides a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million immigrants who are in the United States illegally, a central element of the Senate plan.
House Republicans had planned to tackle a range of immigration issues on a piece-by-piece basis this fall, until pressure from conservatives prompted them to force a standoff over Obama's signature healthcare law that shut down the U.S. government for 16 days and brought the nation to the brink of default.
Lawmakers resolved the budget and debt crisis with an agreement that funds the government through January 15 and extends its borrowing authority through February 7. A bipartisan panel also has been tasked with reaching an agreement on taxes and spending by December 13.
Congress will have trouble tackling anything else until those three deadlines are past, said Josten, whose pro-business group supports the Senate plan in part because it would create opportunities for millions of foreign-born workers to obtain legal status.
"There's not enough time to do a lot of these big-lift issues" such as immigration, Josten said. "And by the way, those big-lift issues are as divisive with the American public as they are with Congress."
Others have questioned whether Congress will have the stomach to tackle a divisive issue such as immigration after the shutdown crisis, which drove Congress' already rock-bottom approval ratings even lower.
Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, a leading advocate of an immigration overhaul, said on Sunday that the lingering ill will from the crisis will make it difficult for the two parties to find common ground.
Senator John McCain, one of the authors of the Senate immigration bill, told the Reuters Washington Summit on Monday that support for new immigration laws from some leading House members is a positive sign.
He noted that House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican and former vice presidential candidate, favors updated immigration laws. McCain added that Republican House Speaker John Boehner has indicated that he would like to push for an immigration overhaul if he could get enough support for it in the House.
On the other hand, McCain, an Arizona Republican, said "there are a large number of Republicans who are in basically safe seats, that have small Hispanic populations," and therefore might not put much of a priority on a broad immigration plan.
Josten said it would be possible to pass an immigration plan even if the House delayed action until next year.
"Of course they can; it's a question of will," he said. "Earlier would be better."
(Additional reporting by Paige Gance; Editing by David Lindsey and Ken Wills)