By Caren Bohan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A heated debate in Washington over possible military strikes on Syria has created a fresh obstacle to the effort to pass U.S. immigration reform legislation, threatening to sap momentum for the effort and further crowd Congress' fall calendar.
Looming budget battles with President Barack Obama had been expected to sideline any action on immigration in the Republican-led House of Representatives for at least a few weeks anyway.7
Now, the focus on whether to authorize Obama to launch strikes on Syria has further cut into the time Congress has to consider the immigration issue this year.
"Syria is a big and important issue," said Doug Holtz-Eakin, president of the conservative American Action Forum and a backer of immigration reform. "It's going to take time and legislative energy. The budget fights are going to be an important part of the fall landscape. There's not a lot of time."
The Senate in June passed a bipartisan bill backed by Obama that would provide a path to citizenship for some 11 million undocumented immigrants, most of them Hispanic, but it faces almost no chance of passage in its current form in the House.
When U.S. lawmakers left Washington a month ago for their summer break, supporters of immigration legislation worried that the recess might be dominated by town hall-style meetings filled with angry voters railing against reform.
That didn't happen and, in fact, a handful of Republican House lawmakers including Congressman Daniel Webster of Florida and Aaron Schock of Illinois signaled new support for giving legal status to the undocumented.
"Politically, August was definitely a win for immigration," said Lanae Erickson Hatalsky, an analyst at Third Way, a moderate think tank.
Angelo Amador, vice president of labor and workforce policy at the National Restaurant Association, said that while "there is little room" for Congress to take up immigration reform now, he sees a possibility of some movement in October.
Congress, which will formally reconvene on Monday, has only nine legislative days in September. Syria could take up at least the first few days, with the rest likely devoted to budget issues. Republican House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner has said that budget matters were his top priority this fall.
Congress faces two near-term fiscal deadlines: it must pass a measure to keep the government from shutting down by the end of September and by mid-October, it must increase in the country's borrowing limit or risk a potential debt default.
While House Republicans are divided on immigration reform, advocates believe the growing clout of Hispanic voters will keep pressure on the party to pass legislation.
Immigration supporters worried that this summer there would be a repeat of the outcry that arose when Congress wrestled with broad reform in 2006 and 2007.
During a recess in May 2006, opponents sent thousands of bricks to Senate and House offices to show their support for building a big barrier along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Amador remembers hearing ethnic slurs six years ago at meetings to discuss immigration reform. By contrast, when he visited Columbia, South Carolina this summer for an event with restaurant owners, the conversation was respectful and people seemed far more open to changes.
To counter expected protests, business, labor and immigrants rights groups launched a blitz of activity in August, including ad campaigns and meetings with lawmakers.
Republican Congressman Trey Gowdy, who chairs a House subcommittee on immigration, said that in most of the meetings he held in his South Carolina district during the break, voters did not even bring the issue up.
At one luncheon at the local chamber of commerce in Greer attended by two dozen local business leaders, Gowdy brought up immigration reform in his opening remarks, as he often does at such events.
None of the business leaders pressed him on the subject, posing questions instead about Syria, government spending and federal flood insurance.
Gowdy said in an interview that the reaction was typical, noting that earlier in the day he visited a local Costco warehouse retailer where residents often stop him to discuss issues of concern.
"Every aisle (in the store) is a mini-town hall," he said. "Not a single person mentioned immigration."
Gowdy, whose district includes farmers and multinational companies such as BMW and Michelin, wants to see the visa system for foreign workers overhauled and is open to legal status for some undocumented immigrants, such as those brought to the United States when they were children.
Gowdy, who favors a piecemeal approach rather than a big package, said he did not think the relatively tranquil August recess would affect the debate in Washington. "Whatever the prospects were before we left, I don't think the prospects have been diminished or improved," he said. (Reporting By Caren Bohan; Editing by Fred Barbash and David Storey)