President Obama is gearing up for yet another legislative battle, this time over the contentious issue of immigration, according to a New York Times report that says one of the goals will be to a create a path for illegal immigrants to become legal.
The push for immigration reform would echo one of Obama's campaign pledges, though its success is uncertain in a tough economic climate.
Administration officials told the Times that Obama plans to speak publicly about the issue in May and will press lawmakers from both parties to begin discussing legislation by the fall.
But the White House downplayed the report, with a spokesman telling FOX News the president consistently said the debate over immigration reform would start this year. The spokesman said nobody is claiming the problem will be fixed this year.
The spokesman pointed out a lengthy response Obama gave at a town hall meeting in California in March, when Obama called for strengthening the border and creating a pathway to citizenship for some illegal immigrants. He did not give a timeframe, however, for when this debate would occur.
"This is not going to be a free ride. It's not going to be some instant amnesty," Obama said at the time. "What's going to happen is you are going to pay a significant fine. You are going to learn English. You are going to go to the back of the line so that you don't get ahead of somebody who was in Mexico City applying legally. But after you've done these things, over a certain period of time you can earn your citizenship."
Several Senate Democratic aides insisted that getting any immigration bill through Congress this year would be almost impossible -- but a senior spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told FOX News Reid wants a bill on the Senate floor in September.
Democrats are in a difficult position, however. Hispanic-Americans were key to numerous Democratic victories in the last two congressional elections, as well as Obama's presidential campaign. Also, Reid, up for re-election in 2010, is from a state with a prominent Latino population, many in the massive service industry based in Las Vegas.
But the labor movement, a major backer of Democrats, is not at all in favor of comprehensive immigration reform, particularly in tough economic times.
Another complicating factor is that the lead immigration reform negotiator Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass, has been slowed by his battle with brain cancer. One Democratic source said it is possible Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., will become the next point man, as he took over the reins of Kennedy's immigration subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee.
"We must solve the immigration issue and we can, even in these difficult economic times. I believe there is a real chance of passing comprehensive reform this year, and the Senate panel on immigration will begin a series of meetings and hearings later this month with an eye towards meeting that goal," Schumer said in a statement.
Schumer plans to meet with Hispanic groups when Congress returns from recess the week of April 20.
The goal of the immigration program will be "policy reform that controls immigration and makes it an orderly system," Cecilia Munoz, director of the White House's intergovernmental affairs, told the Times. "He intends to start the debate this year."
However, the new push for immigration reform would come in the wake of the failure two years ago of the Secure Borders, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Reform Act. That bill received criticism from both sides of the immigration debate, despite being portrayed as a compromise between legalization of illegal immigrants and increased border enforcement.
During Obama's campaign, he pledged to "bring people out of the shadows" through a system that would allow the 12 million undocumented immigrants to pay a fine, learn English and go to the back of the line in the citizenship process.
"Opponents, mainly Republicans, say they will seek to mobilize popular outrage against any effort to legalize unauthorized immigrant workers while so many Americans are out of jobs," the Times said.
FOX News' Mike Emanuel and Trish Turner contributed to this report.