WASHINGTON — Lawmakers will gather at the White House next week for a working session on immigration reform, a meeting that has been highly anticipated by Latino leaders eager for President Obama to honor his campaign promise to put millions of undocumented workers on a "pathway to citizenship." But many Democrats are now concluding that they may well not have the muscle to pass such a controversial measure -- at least not immediately, and possibly not until after the 2010 midterm election.
And even though Obama used a Latino prayer breakfast Friday morning to reiterate his intention to pass some sort of new immigration plan during his presidency, next week's gathering demonstrates how the White House and congressional leaders are trying to strike a careful balance. They are seeking to assuage Latino voters, who are a key constituency, while avoiding specific promises on timing and substance, and while trying not to antagonize independent voters who may have a skeptical view of legalization plans.
Obama, for example, slightly rephrased his immigration goals during Friday's remarks, saying that new legislation should "clarify the status of millions who are here illegally, many who have put down roots."
"For those who wish to become citizens, we should require them to pay a penalty and pay taxes, learn English, go to the back of the line behind those who played by the rules," Obama said.
The biggest obstacle to speedy passage of a citizenship plan, according to interviews with lawmakers and Capitol Hill strategists, is the House. Democrats hold a wide majority there, but at least 40 members represent moderate or conservative swing districts with few Latino voters where legalization plans are unpopular and often derided as "amnesty" for lawbreakers.
"This a very, very difficult issue," said Rep. Jason Altmire, a Democrat elected in 2006 from rural western Pennsylvania. "The Democratic Party is doing everything they can to capture this very fast-growing community, and I understand that. But I'm not in that camp. I made it clear that I was going to take a very hard line on this, and my district takes a hard line."
The White House has downplayed expectations for next week's meeting. According to Latino lawmakers who met with Obama this spring, the president had indicated that he would host a summit with lawmakers and advocacy groups, just as he did with healthcare leaders when he kicked off the debate on that front-burner issue. Instead, the immigration event will be small and private and will include only House and Senate members involved in the immigration debate.
Moreover, the White House is careful to point out that Obama wants to merely begin the debate this year. He is not promising that a plan will be passed this year, although in his campaign he said he would make the issue "a top priority in my first year as president."
Since then, Obama has made it clear that he has two primary legislative goals for the year -- a healthcare overhaul and a global warming bill. Both proposals are already putting many swing-district Democrats in a political bind.
Still, some vocal Latino activists, led by Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.), have pledged to keep applying pressure.
Emma Lozano, an activist who is married to one of Gutierrez's congressional staffers, is organizing a demonstration to take place outside the White House during the immigration meeting, and Gutierrez has promised to tell demonstrators immediately after the meeting what the president said or did not say.
"We need to hear, 'This is what we're for, and this is the timeline,' " Gutierrez said. "This has got to happen this year. . . . Everybody in the House and the Senate is waiting for a signal from the White House."
In recent elections, some party leaders, including now-White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, were advising Democratic candidates in swing districts to steer clear of immigration, or take a hard line by calling for stricter border enforcement and regulation of employers.
Surveys in swing districts presented to Democratic candidates by pollster Stanley Greenberg portrayed support for legalization as a political risk.
But Obama's success with Latinos last year has prompted some Democrats to find a rhetorical middle ground, as has the widespread belief that the party's political dominance relies in part on solidifying its standing with the Latino bloc.
Greenberg produced new swing-district polling last summer to counter his earlier surveys -- this time reporting that "a policy and message that focuses on requiring illegal immigrants to become legal expands the Democratic advantage on the immigration issue." He said that pushing a "legal status requirement" is more popular than simply talking about border enforcement.
One senior Democrat intent on acting this year is Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who faces a reelection campaign in Nevada, where Latinos are a fast-growing constituency. He has pledged to push legislation in the fall.
But prior efforts have failed in the Senate. And with the measure's long-standing champions, Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), no longer taking the lead, strategists say that success is possible only if Obama steps in.
Some strategists believe the most likely time to press the issue will be in 2011, when Obama, once again needing Latino votes to win states such as Florida, Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada and perhaps to compete in Texas and Arizona, will be most motivated to lobby nervous Democrats on behalf of a legalization plan.
Times staff writer Anna Gorman in Los Angeles contributed to this report.