WASHINGTON -- The White House and congressional Democrats are pushing to bring to a vote a bill that creates a path to legal status for young illegal immigrants.
They are seeking the support of moderate Republicans in the lame-duck session before a more conservative GOP contingent arrives in January.
Senior Obama administration officials say Congress should take the opportunity to pass the bill, which was written by members of both parties, to demonstrate to Latino voters that there is bipartisan support for practical approaches to dealing with illegal immigration.
The proposed DREAM Act would use fines, education or military service to allow some of the nation's 2.1 million illegal immigrants under the age of 35 to legally remain in the country.
Democratic strategists also see the bill as a potential litmus test for Republican lawmakers on immigration reform well in advance of the 2012 elections.
"Every time (Republicans) talk about this issue, they drive these voters away," said Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg.
As Latino voters become a larger part of the electorate, both parties can benefit from negotiating on immigration reforms, said Angela Kelly, an immigration policy expert at the Center for American Progress.
The bill "is not only good policy, it is also good politics for both parties," Kelly said. "I am sure this bill will be important to anyone who wants to sit in the White House in 2013."
Republicans counter that immigration reform is not the only issue Latino voters care about.
"Hispanics will vote for Republicans independent of the immigration issue if Republicans are delivering on what they said they were going to do," such as focusing on health care, education, jobs and securing the border, said Javier Ortiz, a long-time Republican strategist.
The DREAM Act's proponents acknowledge that passing it in the Senate is more difficult than in the House.
It's also unclear whether enough Republicans are willing to support any immigration policy beyond stricter enforcement.
The Democrats' move comes a month after all seven Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee sent a letter to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano asking for an estimate of how much it would cost for the U.S. to deport every illegal alien the government encounters.
With Republicans assuming a House majority in January, GOP members stepping into leadership positions have taken an even harder line.
U.S. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, who is in line to take over as head of the House Judiciary subcommittee, has praised efforts in 14 states to draft legislation to end the practice of granting automatic American citizenship to the children of illegal immigrants who are born in the U.S.
"The 14th Amendment has been misconstrued," King said Oct. 20.
Among the most hotly debated pieces of the DREAM Act are the age limit of illegal immigrants who would qualify and whether the students covered under the law should be eligible for in-state tuition at public universities.