WASHINGTON (CNN) – Multiple Obama administration officials tell CNN that the White House is not pushing to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill this year. While it's a top priority for the President's first term, White House spokesperson Nick Shapiro says "the president has consistently said that he wants to start the discussion later this year because our immigration system is broken…but the economy comes first."
The White House has made no secret of the fact that the President wants to see health care and energy reform passed this year, and would be loathe to cripple those efforts with a fight over an issue as controversial as immigration reform. And White House strategists have to be keenly aware of the possible impact on House Democrats from red districts.
But the mood on Capitol Hill could be different.
Jim Manley, Sen. Harry Reid's senior communications advisor, tells CNN that the Majority Leader "intends to try to take comprehensive immigration reform to the floor later this year, probably in the fall." The situation in the House is trickier – a vote on the hot-button issue could hurt freshman Democrats who were elected in swing districts.
But House Democrats were presented with compelling evidence that voters want to see them trying to fix the immigration system. During the House Democrats' February retreat, Pete Brodnitz - who works for the same firm that does polling for the president - argued that Democratic House members should promote their own immigration reform plans.
"The downturn in the economy has not weakened the case for comprehensive reform and has the potential to strengthen the case for it," Brodnitz argued. He added that Democrats must take a lead because "the problem won't go away as long as the GOP continues to raise it" and that because Democrats run Congress and the White House that "makes us increasingly accountable for results."
Among the polling data he cited: 47 percent of voters believe that solving the issue of immigration should be a high priority for the Democratic Congress. Eighty percent of swing district voters say illegal immigration is a serious problem and more than half (57 percent) of swing district voters believe that immigration reform was not discussed enough during the election.
Brodnitz told House Democrats that his polling showed two thirds of voters believe immigrants who are not here legally "should become legal taxpayers and pay their fair share." He argued that "candidates who offer solutions to this problem can find that is an advantage – not just despite the economy but because of the economy."
Still, the White House insists the New York Times story on immigration "isn't news." Administration officials point out the president previously told members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce that he's always planned to start discussions on immigration reform this year.