Reporting from Washington — President Obama gave his strongest signal to date that he is prepared to let another deadline slip for passing an immigration overhaul, telling an audience Wednesday night that he merely wants to start working on the issue before the year is out.
Obama, speaking at a Cinco de Mayo reception in the Rose Garden, was silent on a timetable for completing an immigration bill. The lack of urgency seems consistent with remarks he made to reporters aboard Air Force One last week, when he said an exhausted Congress might lack the "appetite" to vote on another divisive issue right away.
"I want to begin work this year, and I want Democrats and Republicans to work with me — because we've got to stay true to who we are, a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants," Obama said at the event Wednesday.
As a candidate for office in 2008, Obama had said that immigration would be a "top priority in my first year as president."
But at this point in his second year in office, he lacks the necessary votes. No Republican has agreed to co-sponsor a bill that would both strengthen the border and provide a path to legal status for the estimated 11 million immigrants living in the U.S. illegally.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who sponsored an immigration bill during the second term of former President George W. Bush, said: "We have to secure the border first. We have not done that. We cannot enact legislation with a promise that has not been kept since Ronald Reagan gave amnesty to a couple of million illegal immigrants and promised to secure the border."
Making matters more difficult for Obama, Democrats are divided over the urgency of immigration reform. At least two Democratic senators -- Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas -- have privately told the Senate leadership they would prefer to see the issue put off until 2011, according to a Democratic aide.
Progress on the issue has been slow. Last week, a handful of Senate Democrats released an immigration proposal, but they have yet to turn it into concrete legislative language that could be put to a vote. A Senate Democratic aide said that step won't take place until there are assurances that Republican lawmakers will go along.
Obama's stance left immigration advocates disappointed.
"Sounds like more of the slow-walking, happy-talking president we've seen for the last year," said Joshua Hoyt, executive director of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.
Deepak Bhargava, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Community Change, was part of a group of advocates who met with Obama at the White House two months ago to talk about immigration.
Bhargava said Wednesday: "The president needs to be clear and unequivocal that he is determined to get immigration reform done in 2010. He needs to call Republicans and Democrats to the White House and exercise leadership and put the full weight of his office behind a serious effort. We need him to be clear that it's possible and imperative to get legislation done this year."
Obama also used the speech to reiterate his objections to the tough new anti-illegal immigration law in Arizona. He said he has "instructed my administration to closely monitor the new law in Arizona, to examine the civil rights and other implications that it may have."