Jan. 06--NAPLES -- If 2013 was the year of a bipartisan budget agreement, then U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart is hopeful 2014 will be the year Congress tackles immigration reform.
"I'm really, really optimistic," said Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, whose district includes parts of eastern Collier County.
In April, the so-called "Gang of Eight" senators introduced a bill to overhaul the country's immigration system and provide eventual citizenship to millions of undocumented immigrants in the United States. Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio was among the original group of senators pushing the Senate bill.
That bill cleared the Senate in June with a 68-32 vote, led by Democrats. It was sent to the Republican-majority House of Representatives.
The Senate bill calls for numerous steps to prevent future illegal immigration and to check on the legal status of job applicants already living in the United States. It also offers a 13-year path to citizenship to as many as 11 million immigrants now living in the country unlawfully. The measure requires 20,000 new Border Patrol agents and completion of 700 miles of fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border.
House members, including Diaz-Balart, also had begun work on an immigration reform package in 2013.
While an agreement seemed on the horizon at the beginning of 2013, the looming budget crisis knocked out discussions, leaving the Senate bill stagnant in the House.
Diaz-Balart said while he has continued to work on the proposal, the sticking point is finding "the magic formula" which both Democrats and Republicans can agree on.
"I could drop a bill that the majority of Republicans, but not Democrats, will support," he said. "And I could file a bill that Democrats will support, but not Republicans."
Diaz-Balart said he "is very close to the formula" that would work for all sides and is hopeful immigration reform can be tackled early in 2014.
"I want to get it done as early as possible, because soon it's all about the election season," he said. "I'm really optimistic."
He may have reason to be. In 2013, Congress overwhelmingly approved a bipartisan budget bill. The compromise has some lawmakers feeling optimistic as they enter the New Year.
"Maybe it's something we can build on," said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla. "Success begets success, and trust builds trust."
While immigration advocates talk about a possible piecemeal House approach, lawmakers are divided on what should be included in the legislation.
U.S. Rep. Trey Radel, R-Fort Myers, said the most important goal for Republicans and Democrats is to "find areas that we can agree on" as the discussion moves forward. For him, that means building a "solid road map" for reform that is simple to understand.
While Radel isn't as sure as Diaz-Balart that 2014 will be the year of immigration reform, he did say he's interested in the discussions.
"I look forward to continuing the House approach of step-by-step, targeted reforms to our immigration policies that build consensus among Democrats and Republicans, and that starts with securing our borders," he said.
While some are optimistic the bipartisan budget deal could mean good news for immigration reform, others aren't as hopeful.
"I don't see that this is a clear channel for us to move to immigration," said Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, chairman of the House Rules Committee. "I don't think that's what this was about."
And while Diaz-Balart isn't ready to say immigration reform is a done deal, he did say the budget agreement shows both sides can work together.
"It shows if you are willing to work hard, have the trust of colleagues and the right legislation, it is possible," he said.
--The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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Original headline: This is the year for U.S. immigration reform, Collier's Diaz-Balart vows
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