WASHINGTON (CNN) - President Barack Obama began tackling the contentious issue of immigration reform Thursday, hosting a bipartisan group of congressmen at the White House for what the administration called the "launch of a policy conversation."
The meeting, which was delayed twice as economic issues took center stage, was designed to be an "honest discussion of issues where we can identify areas of agreement, and areas where we still have work to do," according to the White House.
"I'm confident that if we enter into this (process) with the notion that this is a nation of laws that have to be observed and this is a nation of immigrants, then we're going to create a stronger nation for our children and our grandchildren," Obama said.
The president conceded, however, that "comprehensive immigration reform is difficult. We know it's a sensitive and politically volatile issue."
The meeting was short on specifics, but long on promises of cooperation across party lines. During the meeting, Obama sat next to his 2008 general election opponent, Arizona GOP Sen. John McCain.
The president said he wanted to "commend" McCain, who "has already paid a significant political cost for doing the right thing" on immigration.
McCain has been severely criticized by conservative Republicans for promoting a comprehensive immigration solution that includes a path to citizenship for the country's estimated 12 million undocumented workers.
Obama said the question of how to deal with those workers will have to be dealt with in a "practical, common-sense way."
The public is "ready for us to do so, but it's going to require some heavy lifting," Obama warned. "It's going to require a victory of practicality ... over short-term politics."
The meeting came less than a week after the president told a Hispanic audience that the "fair, practical and promising way forward" is to strengthen border security, clarify the status of those who are here illegally, and require illegal immigrants to pay a penalty and taxes.
He also said undocumented workers should learn English and "go to the back of the line behind those who played by rules" in terms of applying for citizenship.
–CNN's Dan Lothian and Lisa Sylvester contributed to this report