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A Deal on Immigration?

Christina Bellantoni has the scoop today on a potential deal between the White House and legislators who oppose the immigration restrictions that are in Senate version of the health care bill:

Lawmakers who want to extend health coverage to illegal immigrants will not block the passage of the final health care reform bill so long as the White House offers a substantive promise to start pushing comprehensive immigration legislation this year.

The agreement would quell a potential revolt by members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, who threatened to vote against reform if unauthorized immigrants were barred from purchasing private plans on the insurance exchange—a prohibition that made it to the Senate bill, but not the House version.

Anticipating a potential dust-up during the conference negotiations, the Democratic leadership was already sending signals that they could be willing to make a deal last month. As I reported before the holiday break, Senator Robert Menendez’s office said that Reid had promised to include an amendment in the final bill that would eliminate the five-year waiting period imposed on legal, naturalized immigrants before they can receive Medicaid benefits.

If the White House manages to fulfill its end of the reported bargain, it would certainly be an impressive legislative feat—as well as a potential political liability. Comprehensive immigration reform would likely establish a pathway to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants as well as ramped up border security enforcement. If Congress considers an immigration bill this year, it would have to happen in the spring, says Marc Rosenblum, a senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute. “The Senate would go first in January or February, and the House would follow in March or April…it will have to happen within that window.” Any later and White House would risk pushing the looming fight too close to the midterm elections, exposing vulnerable Democrats to even greater political blowback.

Having watched Obama repeatedly put off immigration reform over the past year, pro-immigrant advocates would certainly welcome a good-faith effort to do so this year. But some point out that even a comprehensive reform bill might not eliminate the potential harms of the immigration provisions in the Senate’s health-care legislation. By requiring proof of citizenship to purchase private insurance on the exchange, the Senate bill could create a verification system that could end up deterring other groups from the exchange, including young people and lawful immigrants. “When they imposed document requirements on Medicare in 2005, thousands of U.S. citizens had a hard time proving their citizenship,” Rosenblum says.

The White House could try to prevent such outcomes if it addresses health-care in the immigration bill—another demand that’s reportedly coming from Hispanic lawmakers. But throwing health care into the immigration mix might just make the political task more complicated. And it's complicated enough already.

Follow Suzy Khimm on Twitter: @SuzyKhimm