WASHINGTON — Congress returns to Washington today with the same rapid-fire agenda it left in August, but lawmakers are likely to postpone considering an immigration overhaul until the end of the year, if not longer.
In Washington, the sudden debate over military action in Syria and a looming face-off with President Barack Obama over the budget and the nation's borrowing limit have shot to the top of the legislative agenda, while Republican angst about losing Hispanic voters in the 2012 presidential campaign has faded.
In the House, where many Republicans view an overhaul bill passed by the Senate as too kind to immigrant lawbreakers, the legislative summer recess has done little to stoke enthusiasm for immediate action. Senior Republican aides in the House say immigration is at the back of the line and unlikely to come up for months.
The prospect of a delay is generating frustration among supporters of the legislation, who felt emboldened by a summer in which conservative opposition in House districts largely fizzled and immigrant groups seized the chance to lobby lawmakers on their home turf.
"We believe (Congress) can walk and chew gum at the same time," said Eliseo Medina, who leads the immigration campaign for the Service Employees International Union. "The more they delay, the worse it will be for them."
Throughout August, immigration groups organized hundreds of visits to congressional offices, town hall meetings, vigils, marches and rallies, creating a constant buzz in the districts of many House lawmakers, particularly Republicans. On Sunday, many Catholic priests preached for a comprehensive immigration overhaul.
At a Mass devoted to immigration in Cincinnati, Catholics, including immigrants from Mexico and Central America and African-Americans, prayed for Congress to act.
"Families in our communities are being ripped apart by deportations, and the system is in chaos," said Tony Stieritz, the director of Catholic Social Action for the Cincinnati archdiocese who helped organize the Mass. "A vote for delay is a vote for crisis and disorder in the current system."
Time is not on their side.
In June, the Senate passed a bipartisan plan to overhaul border security and grant illegal immigrants a chance to earn citizenship. If the House does not take up the immigration issue until 2014, members will face the prospect of voting on a highly contentious issue in the middle of a congressional election year.