Senate Democrats have moved up immigration reform on their to-do list, tentatively moving the measure ahead of climate change legislation on the chamber's timetable.
Backers said it remains to be seen how serious the push for passage this year will be, but a key meeting was held Monday with staff from Sens. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and representatives from business and labor groups.
Participants said the meeting represented the start of a push to get the competing sides to find common ground in order to produce a bipartisan bill in the coming months.
A spokeswoman said Senate Majority Leader Reid wants to move an immigration bill by July.
"I think that this is going to be the start of a process," said Sonia Ramirez, legislative representative for the AFL-CIO, who attended the meeting.
"I think that our priorities and our requirements for reform were laid out and the challenge now stands with the senators to propose language that would achieve those things and for both sides to make assessments on how it matches their criteria," she added.
In a step that could speed movement of a bill, Schumer -- the Senate's third ranking Democrat and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Immigration Subcommittee -- plans to waive his right to hold a subcommittee markup and allow a bill to move straight to a full Judiciary Committee markup, Democratic aides said.
At this point, Schumer and Graham are trying to bridge differences between business and labor organizations.
Those groups remain deeply divided on certain aspects of immigration reform, most notably over how to create a system to give U.S. employers access to foreign temporary workers.
Representatives from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce also attended Monday's meeting.
The Chamber viewed the meeting as a positive, albeit initial, step. It awaits proposed language from the offices of Schumer and Graham that could come by the end of the week, said Randel Johnson, the group's senior vice president for labor and immigration.
Some advocates of reform believe Schumer and Graham are beginning to ramp up pressure on the interest groups to find common ground.
"From my point of view, Schumer and Graham have a very good instinct for how to keep constituencies happy enough while putting together a bill that will have broad appeal," said Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice.
"If there's going to be a bipartisan agreement announced, we'd like to see it in early February. And if either side delays that's as good as saying no," Sharry added.
Aides on both sides of the aisle said that while the Judiciary Committee may consider the bill this spring, the fate of the bill on the Senate floor will depend on the priority given to it by the White House.
"Democrats know that this isn't going anywhere without presidential leadership and despite campaign promises we haven't seen any presidential leadership thus far," said a spokesman for Immigration Subcommittee ranking member John Cornyn, R-Texas.
Republican aides downplayed the chance of floor action on a comprehensive bill, saying they expect Democrats to push legislation to appease key constituent groups, but to move at most a limited bill on the floor due to the political risks associated with the issue in an election year.
GOP aides noted that Reid did not mention immigration reform Monday in an op-ed piece citing his 2010 legislative plans -- an omission they said suggests the bill is not a priority.