WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama called on Congress Thursday to finish work on an immigration overhaul by the end of the year, a lofty goal that will be difficult to meet given the staunch opposition of many House Republicans.
While immigration remains one of Obama's top second term priorities, the issue has been overshadowed for months, most recently by the 16-day partial government shutdown. The president's shift to a greater focus on immigration came as the White House was seeking to shift the conversation away from the deeply problematic rollout of Obama's health care law.
During remarks at the White House, Obama insisted that Congress has the necessary time to finish an immigration bill by the end of the year. The Senate passed sweeping legislation this summer that would provide an eventual path to citizenship for some 11 million immigrants living here illegally and would tighten border security. But the measure has languished in the GOP-led House.
"It doesn't get easier to put it off," Obama said, during an event in the East Room.
The White House was buoyed by comments this week from House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who said he was optimistic his chamber could act on immigration by year's end. But Boehner has long had trouble rallying support from the conservative wing of his caucus and it's unclear whether he can get their backing for the comprehensive bill Obama is seeking.
Most House Republicans have said they prefer a piecemeal approach to fixing the nation's fractured immigration system.
Immediately following Obama's remarks, a spokesman said Boehner was opposed to "massive" legislation that no one understands.
"The House is committed to a common sense, step-by-step approach that gives Americans confidence that reform is done the right way," spokesman Brendan Buck said. "We hope that the president will work with us — not against us — as we pursue this deliberate approach."
Obama, along with some Republican leaders, had hoped that the growing political power of Hispanics would clear the way for an immigration overhaul, a goal that has long eluded Washington. No sweeping immigration legislation has been passed since a bill co-sponsored by Wyoming Republican Sen. Alan Simpson, more recently co-chairman of the Simpson-Bowles deficit commission, was enacted in 1986.
Obama won an overwhelming majority of Hispanic voters in the 2012 presidential election and some political analysts believe that the country's shifting demographics will make it difficult for Republicans to win the White House without boosting their appeal to the Latino community.
But most tea party-backed Republicans oppose measures that would grant legal status to people already in the country illegally, even with the fines and long waiting period that would be imposed by the Senate measure. The recent shutdown and debt ceiling fight also fueled deeper resentment toward Obama among those lawmakers, who got virtually nothing out of the deal that was reached to reopen the government and lift the borrowing limit.
In the wake of that messy stretch for Congress, Obama urged lawmakers to see immigration has an opportunity to show the public that government can work.
"Rather than create problems, let's prove to the American people that Washington can actually solve some problems," Obama said.
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