DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Immigration reform has been moved from Washington's front-burner to the back of the stove over the past year and a half. Republicans and Democrats insist it is still a priority, but it's hard to spot much progress. Still, Chuck Schumer persists. The Democratic senator from New York sponsored the comprehensive bipartisan bill that passed the Senate last year. It included a path to citizenship for the 12 million or so undocumented immigrants in the United States. That law went nowhere in the House, and differences over a path to citizenship remain a major hurdle. We reached Schumer in his office on Capitol Hill to talk about whether Democrats and Republicans can find common ground. Senator Schumer, thanks for coming on the program. We appreciate you taking the time.
SENATOR CHUCK SCHUMER: My pleasure.
GREENE: So, I wanted to start by just asking you about the speaker of the House, John Boehner. He basically said that immigration reform is not happening his year. So, is that bad?
SCHUMER: I think it is bad for it not to happen. Our system is very broken. The CBO said that if we passed immigration reform, GDP would go up 3.5 percent.
GREENE: This is the Congressional Budget Office we say, senator.
SCHUMER: The Congressional Budget Office. That's more than any Republican tax cut program or any Democratic spending program, and it makes sense. You bring immigrants out of the shadows. You allow people to come into this country who will be really productive, and they're going to work hard and grow the economy and create good-paying jobs.
GREENE: But if the speaker of the House is basically saying it's not happening, how much energy is it worth putting into this year?
SCHUMER: Well, he has said it's happening, it's not happening, it's not happening, it's happening. He made a good effort to try. And the unfortunate part of it was the timing. He had to go over the hard right of his party on the debt ceiling. And I don't think - I think he felt he couldn't say I'm also going to do immigration. But as we more a little further along, I think it's very possible that there will be immigration reform. A large portion of Republican Party supporters - business, evangelicals, Catholic Church, high tech, big growers and agriculture - all very much want the bill, and they're pressuring the Republicans in the House to pass a bill.
GREENE: One of the essential arguments from Republicans is that they don't trust President Barack Obama to enforce immigration laws. And you threw out a possible solution to that: pass the bill now, wait until Obama's out of office to implement it. Now, you're one of the president's key allies in Congress. Do you worry that that sends a bad message to him?
SCHUMER: No. And I don't think they did, either. Look, I believe the president's been very good at enforcing the law. Much to the chagrin of many on the more liberal side, he's deported double the number of people Bush had. So I think this is an excuse for many. But what I wanted to do is call their bluff. OK. You don't think that President Obama will pass the law, let's pass the law now and have it start in 2017. And so if that's their only concern, we can meet it. And one other point: some are saying, well, we'll do it next year. Always kicking the can down the road. The problem with next year is the Republican primaries heat up, the Republican primaries move their whole party way to the right. I think the likelihood of getting it done in 2015 is much less than in 2014.
GREENE: Let me ask you about this midterm election year.
SCHUMER: And by the way, you could use that argument we shouldn't pass any laws. If you don't believe a president will enforce laws, don't pass any. I mean, it's such a bogus argument. But if my solution helps deal with it, fine.
GREENE: Let me, if I may, ask you about this midterm election year. There are some pretty vulnerable Democrats in the Senate, in large part because of a lot of anger in this country about Obamacare, the Affordable Care Act. How is your party going to deal with that anger and criticism out there?
SCHUMER: Well, I think there are two ways I'd answer that. First, on Obamacare itself, I think the positives will get better in the sense that people are learning that this is working. In New York state, we have more people on the exchanges than we are projected to have, because we have a lot of competition. Many, many people - a large percentage of people - are getting a much better and lower rate. And here's another thing that's going to make the negatives fade away: A lot of the people who hate Obamacare have said a parade of horribles, that, oh, if you're on Medicare it'll affect you, oh, if you're - you know, you have private insurance, it'll affect you. And as people see it doesn't, that fades. But even more importantly than Obamacare: the number one issue that's affecting America that will determine the 2014 elections is who can create good-paying jobs and grow middle-class incomes. Number one...
GREENE: But it's Obamacare that's on the mind of a lot of voters right now. I mean, we had a recent piece in Louisiana where we heard from people saying that they like Democratic incumbent Mary Landrieu - one of your colleagues - you know, and they'd vote for her if she hadn't voted for the Affordable Care Act.
SCHUMER: I would tell you if Mary Landrieu does what she continues to do - talk about getting the middle-class moving again - that will be more important than Obamacare in her election, and she will prevail.
GREENE: It's a matter of changing the conversation out there, you're saying.
SCHUMER: I think, yes, it's a matter of we are changing the conversation as we're going to bring a whole series of bills to the floor that affect middle-class economy. But at the same time, it's what people really feel.
GREENE: Senator Schumer, it's great to talk to you. Thanks for the time. We appreciate it.
SCHUMER: Great. Take care. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.