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Immigration Overhaul Inches Forward, But Big Hurdles Remain

It's still far too early to know whether Congress will actually be able to achieve a comprehensive overhaul to the nation's immigration laws. All that's certain at this stage is that lawmakers on both sides of the partisan divide, and in both chambers, continue to act as though they think they can.

With the news over the holiday weekend that organized labor and business groups reached agreement on the contentious issue of allowing more unskilled workers to enter the U.S. legally, a significant obstacle was moved from the path of a bipartisan group of senators seeking a deal.

A Senate group, the latest "gang" that has formed in that body to work on a thorny issue, is expected to make public its proposed legislation next week, when Congress returns from its holiday recess.

But as anyone who closely watched omprehensive immigration overhaul efforts in 2006 and 2007 can tell you, the Senate part of this is the relatively easy piece. They also know that all the progress could certainly stall, as it did seven years ago.

Not only is the Senate controlled by a Democratic Party that's more cohesive on the immigration issue, but even conservative Republican senators — who of course represent an entire state — are likely to have many constituents who back changes to immigration law.

That's less true for many Republican House members, whose greatest fear may be a primary challenge from a contender to the right of them on illegal immigration. (It was during the Republican primary season last year when Mitt Romney, attempting to win the GOP nomination, talked of illegal immigrants and "self deportation.")

So, it's significant that the Republican-controlled House also has a bipartisan group of lawmakers meeting without much publicity to seek common ground on immigration. As with the Senate gang, the House bipartisan group is expected to unveil its ideas shortly after Congress returns next week.

Republican House members are reportedly being brought up to speed on the immigration issue because, as Bloomberg reports, the last time Congress seriously considered such legislation, "more than half of today's House Republicans weren't even elected."

White House press secretary Jay Carney sounded an optimistic note Monday:

"I would say, broadly, that we are encouraged by the continuing signs of progress that we are seeing in the Senate and the Group of Eight. ... However, we're not there yet. This process is still under way in the Senate. Legislation still has to be drafted, written. And we will evaluate the specific aspects of that legislation when it's produced."

Speaking as he does for Obama, Carney is right to be cautious. As a relatively new Senate member seven years ago, Obama was among a bipartisan group who worked on immigration legislation, failing to enact a comprehensive package.

It is by no means a sure thing that a comprehensive bill will pass in the Senate this time, either. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a member of the so-called Gang of Eight and a potential 2016 presidential candidate, said in a statement Sunday that talk of an agreement was "premature."

"Arriving at a final product will require it to be properly submitted for the American people's consideration, through the other 92 senators from 43 states that weren't part of this initial drafting process," said Rubio. "In order to succeed, this process cannot be rushed or done in secret."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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