WHITE HOUSE — White House officials and both parties on Capitol Hill say they believe they eventually can reach an agreement on legislation to reform the U.S. immigration system, but that they will first need to overcome deep differences.
President Barack Obama met Thursday with Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer and Republican Senator John McCain to discuss ways to help move the House of Representatives toward an agreement on an immigration reform initiative like the one that recently cleared the Senate.
Their talks at the White House came one day after majority Republicans in the House discussed their strategy on the issue.
Schumer said he was encouraged that House Republicans agreed with Democrats that immigration reform must be addressed.
“Once you say doing nothing is not an option, you have to move in a direction to be bipartisan," he said. "And once you are bipartisan, you are going to get some progress that can get something done."
The top House Republican, Speaker John Boehner, Thursday said lawmakers understand the need to overhaul immigration policy.
However, he said the House wants to pass a series of smaller bills, rather than the comprehensive legislation that passed the Senate. And Republicans are insisting on tougher provisions for border security.
"A vast majority of our members do believe that we have to wrestle with this problem," said Boehner. "They also believe that we need to do this step-by-step, common sense approach. Thirdly, I would add, it is clear that securing our borders and having the ability to enforce our immigration laws are the first big step in this process."
Another major sticking point is what to do about the 11 million immigrants who are in the United States illegally. Democrats are insisting that any reform legislation include a path to citizenship, while Republicans have strongly opposed such a provision.
Boehner also said he is more concerned with “doing it right” than with meeting any deadline.
After his White House meeting, McCain told fellow Republicans in the House that he and other senators will work hard for a deal.
“We are ready to negotiate. We are ready to talk," he said. "We are ready to sit down with you and negotiate and bring this issue to a conclusion that we all agree has to be addressed."
Immigration reform is an important issue to many Hispanic Americans, who voted for President Obama by large majorities last year and in 2008. This puts additional pressure on Republicans, especially those, like Senator McCain of Arizona, who represent states with big Latino populations.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney says immigration reform efforts have widespread support across the country.
"We remain hopeful and optimistic that the Congress will eventually act on this, and we believe they should act soon, because the consensus is there," he said. "Business supports it. Labor supports it. Faith leaders support it. Law enforcement supports it."
However, many House Republicans represent majority white districts where immigration is not popular, and they are under pressure from voters back home to reject reform.