Concerns are mounting that Senate Majority Leader Reid might try to advance a hastily drafted immigration reform bill to satisfy demands that legislation is introduced by May 1.
Sources said such a move would be disruptive to business and labor groups, which resumed delicate negotiations Wednesday to find compromises on several issues, including how to bring workers into the country to meet labor needs.
Talks had broken down last month but resumed in hopes of producing a comprehensive immigration reform bill that would be introduced by Sens. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
Reid and congressional Democratic leaders are under escalating pressure from grassroots Latino and pro-immigration groups to introduce legislation by next weekend or face repercussions, including mass demonstrations, civil disobedience and diminished support at the ballot box in November.
Sources familiar with the talks doubt a bill will be ready by then, as Schumer and Graham have yet to circulate firm legislative language.
One source said good progress was being made in the negotiations. Both sides are focusing on how to develop a visa system that brings workers into the country to meet business needs, rather than establishing a temporary worker program that is opposed by labor unions, especially the AFL-CIO.
The groups are negotiating over the idea of creating a commission to determine how many foreign workers would be allowed to enter the country, the source added.
An emerging idea is to create a commission that would make recommendations to Congress on labor needs. A cap could be set on the number of workers to be allowed into the country, but the process could be flexible enough to allow rapid adjustment of the cap to meet business needs, the source said.
On Thursday, business groups were trying to find out what kind of bill Reid wants to bring forward, fearing he may try to advance immigration legislation introduced in the House by Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill. That bill is loaded with provisions backed by liberal Democrats but opposed by business groups.
"A hasty partisan push in a difficult climate could end up poisoning the well and make it much more difficult to get to reform," said Tamar Jacoby, president of Immigration Works USA, a business coalition.
"The Democratic leadership is facing the choice [former President Lyndon B. Johnson] used to put to lawmakers -- do they want a bill or an issue?"
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is also worried about "a Democratic-only approach," said Angelo Amador, the group's director of immigration.
"We are optimistic that we will not end up going that route," he said. "From our perspective the best thing to do is continue working with the Schumer-Graham proposal."
When asked what Reid's intention is, a spokesman for the majority leader would only say: "It is his intention to take comprehensive immigration reform to the floor."
Graham also questioned what Democratic leaders plan to do. "If immigration comes up then that's the ultimate CYA politics," he said.
The timing and content of immigration reform may also emerge as another potential litmus test for whether climate and energy legislation is doable this year, Graham said.
If Democratic leaders bring up an immigration bill in "a haphazard way" then it "destroys the ability to do something like energy and climate," Graham said. "What bill are we going to introduce?"
President Obama and Democratic leaders are still searching for another Republican to co-sponsor an immigration bill. Obama personally called Sens. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Richard Lugar, R-Ind., Tuesday to gauge their support.
At least for now, those senators are not joining the negotiations.
A Gregg spokeswoman said the senator "is still considering whether to join such discussions should the opportunity arise."
"I made no commitments to the president other than to review any immigration package that is developed," Murkowski said.
Lugar "has not and is not" joining negotiations, his spokesman said.
Meanwhile Thursday, Reid and House Majority Leader Hoyer downplayed reports that they will put immigration reform ahead of other priorities, like climate change legislation.
"I'm not going to say one is more important than the other," Reid said.
Hoyer said energy and climate change legislation remain signature issues for House Speaker Pelosi.
At a Christian Science Monitor breakfast, Hoyer was asked if it matters politically to the Democrats to pass an immigration bill that could rally Hispanic voters and increase the November turnout.
"It certainly matters that we acknowledge that this is an important issue and that is what we've done," Hoyer said. But he said he was not sure the Senate can move forward, having failed to reach agreement with the House the last time such legislation was considered.
This article appears in the April 24, 2010, edition of National Journal Daily.