WASHINGTON (CNN) - President Barack Obama is set to begin tackling the politically contentious issue of immigration Thursday, hosting a bipartisan group of congressmen at the White House for what the administration is calling the "launch of a policy conversation."
The meeting, which was delayed twice as economic issues took center stage, is 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.
The meeting comes less than a week after the president reiterated his commitment to passing comprehensive immigration reform that paves the way for citizenship for millions of undocumented workers.
On Friday, Obama 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.
"The American people believe in immigration, but they also believe that we can't tolerate a situation where people come to the United States in violation of the law," Obama said in an address to the eighth annual National Hispanic Prayer Breakfast in Washington.
"Nor can we tolerate employers who exploit undocumented workers in order to bring down wages," he added.
While immigration reform is a top priority for the president's first term, the nation's continuing economic woes top his list of domestic priorities.
"The president has consistently said that he wants to start the (immigration) discussion later this year because our immigration system is broken," White House spokesman Nick Shapiro said earlier this year. "But the economy comes first."
In downplaying the immigration issue, the White House may also be acknowledging the political complexity associated with the issue. Former President George W. Bush made comprehensive immigration reform a priority in his second term, but failed to win congressional approval.
Similarly, the Obama White House may not yet have the support it needs in Congress to pass a comprehensive reform measure.
"Currently, where we sit, the math makes that more difficult than the discussion," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Monday.
Several pro-immigration reform groups are nevertheless pushing the administration to make a stronger effort this year, in part because next year's mid-term elections could make major reform even more difficult.
Politically, Obama has been walking a fine line, trying to appease pro-amnesty Hispanic groups who backed him in the election while at the same time trying to win over broader public and congressional opinion by taking a tougher stance on enforcement.
Among other things, the administration earlier this year changed the focus of worksite enforcement raids away from targeting undocumented workers, and instead on employers who break immigration laws.
"The president has some time," said Mark Krikorian from the Center for Immigration Studies, a group that favors tighter immigration restrictions.
"I can't guess if he has six months or a year where he can keep kicking the can down the road before he pays a political price from one side or the another. But at some point his time runs out."
- CNN's Dan Lothian and Lisa Sylvester contributed to this report