WASHINGTON - Launching a fresh effort toward acomprehensive immigration overhaul, President Barack Obama saidThursday that a bipartisan bill on the "sensitive and volatilepolitical issue" will be difficult but must get under way thisyear.
"It's going it require some heavy lifting," Obama said as hehosted a meeting of about 30 lawmakers whose views on immigrationspan the ideological spectrum. "It's going to require a victory ofpracticality and common sense and good policy making overshort-term politics. That's what I'm committed to doing aspresident."
A sweeping immigration overhaul was a personal priority forObama's Republican predecessor, George W. Bush, who was soconfident of its chances that he once told reporters, "I'll seeyou at the bill signing."
But the bill collapsed in the Senate in 2007, mostly under theweight of criticism from conservatives who saw it as an amnestymeasure for illegal immigrants that was publicly unpopular andpolitically untenable.
Much of the debate centered on how to deal with the roughly 12million illegals already living in the United States.
Among the attendees Thursday was Obama's opponent in thepresidential election, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who was ahigh-profile supporter of immigration reform, a position that costhim support within his own party. But McCain rallied to win theRepublican nomination for the presidency and Obama gave him specialrecognition for paying "a significant political cost for doing theright thing."
"There's not by any means consensus across the table," Obamasaid. "What I am encouraged by is that after all the overheatedrhetoric and the occasional demagoguery on all sides around thisissue, we've got a responsible set of leaders sitting around thetable who want to actively get something done."
Several lawmakers -- Democrats and Republicans -- said after themeeting that this year is the last chance to try again, perhaps fordecades.
"We've got one more chance to do this," said Sen. LindseyGraham, R-S.C. "If we fail this time around, no politician isgoing to take this up in a generation."
Obama announced that Homeland Security Secretary JanetNapolitano will lead a group of lawmakers on the issue from theHouse and Senate "to start systematically working through" thestickiest, most emotional questions.
One of those is whether a worker verification system is needed,such as a fraud-resistent, biometric card to catch employers whoemploy undocumented workers.
Another is how -- or whether -- to create a path to citizenshipfor the 12 million illegal immigrants.
Still another tough issue is whether to expand guest workerprograms. Business groups support it, but labor union leaders havejoined together this time to oppose it. Unions have called forcreation of an independent government commission to decide futureimmigration of temporary and permanent workers based on labormarket needs.
But addressing reporters on the White House driveway, McCainsaid, "We don't need a commission." He said he would not supportany bill without an expanded temporary guest worker program, andcalled on Obama to use his clout with organized labor to get themto ease their opposition.