The four Democrats in the Senate negotiating group met with Obama at the White House on Wednesday, telling him they were confident a bipartisan bill could be agreed to "in the coming weeks," a senior Democrat said later, speaking on condition of anonymity because the meeting was private. A White House statement said Obama reiterated his intention to offer legislation of his own if Congress fails to act, and told senators that continuing to strengthen the border should not be mutually exclusive from a pathway to citizenship.
The Senate bipartisan plan makes a pathway to citizenship conditional on border security first, something on which Republicans have insisted. Obama's immigration proposals don't make that linkage, and it's emerging as a point of contention.
The bipartisan Senate negotiators are operating separately from the Senate Judiciary Committee, but the committee would probably vote on any legislation they produce. First, numerous thorny issues would have to be solved. Questions Wednesday touched on how to define border security, how to structure a future worker program, how to ensure employers can and will verify the legal status of their workers, and how to craft a path to citizenship that would not advantage illegal immigrants over those attempting the process legally.
The action comes in a rapidly shifting political environment. Polls find more Americans support eventual citizenship for illegal immigrants and many Republican leaders are coming around to the same view after their party's dismal showing among Latino voters in the November elections.
But, as the hearing made clear, deep divisions exist within the GOP that could threaten any legislation in the Senate, where Republicans hold enough votes to stall legislation, or in the House, where majority Republicans are waiting to see what the Senate does before taking any action.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a Judiciary Committee member who is part of the bipartisan "Gang of Eight" working on an immigration bill, drew out Napolitano about the urgency of quick action on immigration legislation.
"Have you ever seen a better opportunity than the moment that exists today to pass comprehensive immigration reform?" Graham asked.
"No, this is the moment," Napolitano replied.
"Do you agree with me that the pay-offs for the nation are enormous?" Graham asked, citing improving the economy and national security.
"I couldn't say it better than you just did," Napolitano said.
But not long after, Sessions made clear that those who think the time is ripe for will face determined opposition.
"There's a lot of overconfidence about this bill," Sessions said. "If it doesn't really work it's not going to pass, we're going to expose it."
Associated Press writer Alicia A. Caldwell contributed to this report.
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