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Obama optimistic on immigration legislation

As a bipartisan group of senators chips away at the remaining obstacles to an immigration deal, President Barack Obama says he is optimistic that – if lawmakers release a draft bill early next month – he will be able to sign comprehensive immigration reform into law before autumn.

“If we have a bill introduced at the beginning of next month -- as these senators indicate it will be -- then I'm confident that we can get it done certainly before the end of the summer,” Obama said in an interview with Telemundo on Wednesday.

The president repeated that he could still introduce a White House-drafted version of the legislation if the “Gang of Eight” Senate group is not able to put forward a bill. But he said he’s confident that lawmakers will be able to work out the final snags in the negotiations in time to unveil their proposal when they return from a two-week Easter recess next month.

“I'm optimistic,” he said. “ I've always said that if I see a breakdown in the process, that I've got my own legislation. I'm prepared to step in. But I don't think that's going to be necessary.  I think there's a commitment -- among this group of Democratic and Republican senators to get this done.”

The negotiations have been held up in part by continuing disputes between business and labor groups about the conditions of a guest-worker program, particularly the wages and treatment ensured to temporary workers compared to those for American workers pursuing similar jobs.

But the president said he doesn’t believe that the dispute could scuttle the whole reform framework.

“There are still some areas about … the future flow of guest workers,” he said. “Labor and businesses may not always agree exactly on how to do this.  But this is a resolvable issue.”

While he expressed optimism that a final bill will contain a path to citizenship for those currently in the country illegally, Obama would not offer specifics on how long the process of obtaining citizenship should take.

And he declined to outline how the security of the nation’s border should be assessed, saying only that there should be no border security “trigger” that must be met before undocumented persons are eligible to begin the process of seeking legal status.

“We don't want to make this earned pathway to citizenship a situation in which it's put off further and further into the future,” he said. “There needs to be a certain path for how people can get legal in this country, even as we also work on these strong border security issues.”

While the White House has deferred to the Senate group on the legislative language, the president has used the bully pulpit in recent days to urge lawmakers to action and remind the public of the general framework for reform that he supports – including a path to citizenship.

In addition to the Telemundo interview, he also sat down with Spanish-language channel Univision on Wednesday. Earlier this week, the president urged Congress to show “political courage” on the issue during remarks at a naturalization ceremony at the White House.

Senate negotiators say they are close to a final deal.

Earlier Wednesday, Republican Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake of Arizona held a joint press conference with Democrats Chuck Schumer of New York and Michael Bennet of Colorado. The lawmakers traveled to Arizona’s southern border to survey the state of security there, a tour that offered a very real illustration of the illegal immigration issue when they spotted a woman scaling a border fence. (She was later apprehended by border security officers, McCain said.)

At a press conference, Schumer told reporters there that negotiators are “90 percent of the way there” on a compromise bill, adding that the trip offered a glimpse into what further resources are needed to ensure full border security.

“We learned about the great progress that’s been made,” Schumer said. “It’s a lot better than it was 10 years ago, but we also learned that we have more progress to go. And in our immigration bill, we hope that we will make that progress, along with many other goals.”

While the president is hopeful that a bill will move quickly through the legislative process, opponents say the negotiations deserve a longer – and more public – hearing.  

Leading that charge, Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama has accused Democratic Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy of trying to “ram through” the bill with limited debate before the measure hits the Senate floor.

“The massive proposal being cobbled together by a group of Senators in secret must be independently judged and reviewed by the Judiciary Committee in the full light of day,” Sessions said in a statement today. “That will take months — not two weeks — and will require hearings on every aspect of this issue."