A demonstrator carries a sign reading, "Obama: Where is the reform?"… (Genaro Molina, Los Angeles…)
WASHINGTON — The window to pass immigration laws next year is narrowing as the effort competes with a renewed debate over gun laws and the lingering fight over taxes and the budget, according to congressional staffers and outside advocates.
Key congressional committees are preparing for a package of gun control laws to be negotiated and possibly introduced in Congress during the first few months of next year. The shift would push the debate in Congress over immigration reform into the spring.
But as budget negotiations continue to stir tensions between Republicans and Democrats, and as lobbyists take to their corners over gun laws, some are concerned that the heated atmosphere could spoil the early signs of bipartisan cooperation on immigration that emerged after the election.
In phone calls over the holidays, White House officials sought to reassure advocates that the push for gun control won't distract President Obama from his promise to stump for new immigration legislation early in the year.
The uncertainty is feeding jitters that Obama may be unable to deliver on his long-standing promise to create a path to citizenship for the 11 million people in the U.S. unlawfully.
"I am concerned that an issue such as immigration where we can find strong bipartisan consensus will be demagogued and politicized, because that is the environment," said Alfonso Aguilar, a Republican strategist at the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, a Washington-based nonprofit.
New gun laws would probably have to pass through the Senate Judiciary Committee, the same committee that would work on an immigration bill that could be hundreds of pages long.
The tough work of hammering out a compromise over immigration in the committee would best be wrapped up by the end of June, congressional staffers said, in case one of the Supreme Court justices retires, which would set up a high-profile and time-consuming nomination process that could overshadow the immigration issue.
"Voters want to see action," said Clarissa Martinez de Castro, head of civic engagement and immigration for the National Council of La Raza. "If the American public every day has to grapple with multiple priorities, that is the least they expect from their members of Congress."
After the Dec. 14 school shooting that killed 20 children and six adults in Newtown, Conn., Obama tapped Vice President Joe Biden to head a task force that is expected to propose new gun control measures by the end of January.
"The question is: Would the Congress love to have something come along that would sidetrack immigration reform? I believe there are some members of Congress who would like that," said Eliseo Medina, secretary-treasurer of the Service Employees International Union, which represents more than 2 million workers.
"But the fact is, they won't have the luxury of ignoring it," he said.
The crowded agenda has not changed plans by advocacy groups to launch a nationwide publicity and lobbying campaign early next year to put pressure on lawmakers to support changing immigration laws.
"As horrific as the tragedy was in Connecticut, in the grand scheme of things, these issues can run on parallel tracks," said Mary Giovagnoli, director of the Immigration Policy Center, a think tank based in Washington.
"They are not in competition; they are complementary," said Angela Kelley, an expert on immigration at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank in Washington. "The White House can walk and chew gum, as can lawmakers."
"If [lawmakers] are working 40 hours a week, they should be able to get both done," she said.