WASHINGTON — If the Senate manages to pass a long-term budget deal Tuesday, the next item on the agenda for Congress could be even harder: immigration.
Republican leaders, led by House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, have deemed immigration legislation a priority in the new year. The Senate is expected to pass Tuesday a bipartisan budget deal for the next two years that would clear the legislative calendar and eliminate the threat of a government shutdown in January. And even Bob Dane, whose Federation for American Immigration Reform strongly opposes a bill, concedes that at this point, "the ground is very fertile" for an immigration bill.
"It's going to happen," Vice President Biden said during a webinar last week.
However, whether that momentum leads to a sweeping rewrite of the nation's immigration laws could have more to do with the 2014 elections than current conditions.
The biggest roadblock to legislation has been, and will continue to be, Republicans in the House who oppose a deal similar to that passed by the Senate allowing the nation's 12 million undocumented immigrants to apply for U.S. citizenship. Dane says an already-fractured GOP must stand firm in opposition if it wants to have any success come election day.
"Opposing amnesty next year is probably the last hope for the GOP to save itself from losing a core group of its voters," Dane said.
Despite their public support of immigration revisions, Republican House leaders accomplished little in 2013.
The Senate passed its comprehensive rewrite of the nation's immigration laws in June, including $46 billion in border security and an overhaul of the legal immigration system to bring in more high-tech and low-skilled workers.
House committees have approved five bills that focus on immigration enforcement and expanding the legal immigration system to bring in more foreign workers. But the last of those bills was approved in June; none of them have been brought to the House floor. No Republicans have introduced a bill that deals with the undocumented population.
Some House Republicans are pushing their colleagues to get those bills moving.
Reps. David Valadao, R-Calif., and Jeff Denham, R-Calif., have been pressing Republicans to sign onto a letter they hope to present to Boehner in January supporting action on immigration legislation.
Denham would not specify how many signatures they've garnered so far, but he said there is a surprising level of interest among his GOP colleagues.
"We've been getting a good percentage of our conference signing on," he said.
Denham said they'd have even more signatories, but some supportive Republicans are reluctant out of fear of primary season. Conservative groups have made clear that they will support more conservative GOP candidates against lawmakers who back the Senate bill, so adding their name to the letter could lead to easy attack ads.
"It puts a target on their back," Denham said.
Some also see Boehner's repudiation of outside conservative groups as his chamber passed the budget deal last week as evidence that he might be willing to push an immigration bill that isn't supported by the Tea Party wing of his party.
"It shows that Boehner wants to get things done and he's not going to be held hostage by the extreme right," said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, a group that supports the Senate bill and has spent the past year encouraging rank-and-file Republicans to embrace it. "You win the conference, you win leadership, and we're getting closer and closer to winning the conference."
In the meantime, immigration advocates have turned up the pressure on Republicans in the House.
Supporters completed a weeks-long fast for immigration changes on Friday, with several members of Congress joining for 24-hour, water-only fasts. But the tactics of immigration supporters have grown more and more confrontational.
Young undocumented immigrants interrupted Boehner while he was having breakfast several weeks ago, they've staked out the home of Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., and have held nearly constant protests outside Majority Whip Rep. Kevin McCarthy's office in California.
Last week, immigration supporters held sit-ins in the congressional offices of two-dozen representatives.
Those moves irked some in Congress. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., has been pushing for new immigration laws for years and said protests aimed at so many members of Congress – including himself and other supporters – are "not exactly contributing to get this done."
But others, like Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., said he's not surprised by their impatience and expects it to continue when Congress returns to Washington in January.
"They're angry, they're disillusioned, they're hurt, so you shouldn't expect them to come bringing flowers and roses," Gutierrez said. "You should expect them to come here angry."
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