WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama pressed for swift action on a sweeping immigration bill Wednesday, saying last-minute obstacles are "resolvable" and predicting Congress could pass historic legislation by the end of the summer.
In back-to-back interviews with Spanish-language television networks, Obama repeatedly voiced confidence in a bipartisan Senate group that appears to be on the cusp of unveiling a draft bill. And he said that while he is still prepared to step in with his own bill if talks break down, he doesn't expect that step to be necessary.
"If we have a bill introduced at the beginning of next month as these senators indicate it will be, then I'm confident that we can get it done certainly before the end of the summer," Obama told Telemundo.
While overhauling the nation's patchwork immigration laws is a top second term priority for the president, he has ceded the negotiations almost entirely to Congress. He and his advisers have calculated that a bill crafted by Capitol Hill stands a better chance of winning Republican support than one overtly influenced by the president.
In his interviews Wednesday, Obama tried to stay out of the prickly policy issues that remain unfinished in the Senate talks, though he said a split between business and labor on wages for new low-skilled workers was unlikely to "doom" the legislation.
"This is a resolvable issue," he said.
The president also spoke Wednesday with Univision. His interviews followed a citizenship ceremony conducted Monday at the White House where he pressed Congress to "finish the job" on immigration, an issue that has vexed Washington for years.
The president made little progress in overhauling the nation's fractured immigration laws in his first term, but he redoubled his efforts after winning re-election. The November contest also spurred some Republicans to drop their opposition to immigration reform, given that Hispanics overwhelmingly backed Obama.
In an effort to keep Republicans at the negotiation table, Obama has stayed relatively quiet on immigration over the last month. He rolled out his immigration principles during a January rally in Las Vegas and made an impassioned call for overhauling the nation's laws during his early February State of the Union address, then purposely handed off the effort to lawmakers.
The president has, however, privately called members of the Senate working group, and the administration is providing technical support to the lawmakers. The Gang of Eight is expected to unveil its draft bill when Congress returns from a two-week recess the week of April 8.
Obama and the Senate group are in agreement on some core principles, including a pathway to citizenship for most of the 11 million illegal immigrants already in the country, revamping the legal immigration system and holding businesses to tougher standards on verifying their workers are in the country legally.
But they're at odds over key issues. The Senate group wants the citizenship pathway to be contingent on securing the border, something Obama opposes. The president has also sidestepped the contentious guest-worker issue, which contributed to derailing immigration talks in 2007.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO have reached significant agreements on a new visa program that would bring up to 200,000 lower-skilled workers to the country each year. But they reached a stalemate Friday over wages for the workers, with the labor union pushing for higher wages than the chamber has agreed to so far.
Since then, talks have resumed and negotiators are "back on the right track," Ana Avendano, a lead AFL-CIO negotiator, said Wednesday.
Avendano declined to offer specifics but said the chamber had moved off what she termed its insistence on "poverty-level wages" for the new workers.
"We're very hopeful that we're moving," Avendano told reporters after a briefing for congressional staff on temporary-worker programs.
While Obama tries to keep the pressure on lawmakers this week, four members of the Senate immigration group toured Arizona's border with Mexico to inspect the conditions there. Arizona's Republican Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake were joined by Democratic Sens. Chuck Schumer of New York and Michael Bennet of Colorado for the border tour.
The president also announced in his interviews that he planned to visit Mexico, as well as Costa Rica, in early May. The immigration debate in the U.S. is being closely watched by Latin American countries.