By Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. immigration reform supporters, reeling from their failure to get legislation enacted this year, saw a new ray of hope on Tuesday as House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner announced he had hired a long-time immigration specialist to advise him.
"The speaker remains hopeful that we can enact step-by-step, common-sense immigration reforms," said Boehner spokesman Michael Steel, who added, "Becky Tallent, a well-known expert in this field of public policy, is a great addition to our team and that effort."
Tallent, director of immigration policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center, is a former aide to Republican Senator John McCain, a major player in the long-running immigration debate. She helped write several bills over the past decade that would have accomplished the first major rewrite of immigration policy since 1986.
McCain was a key sponsor of bipartisan legislation that passed the Senate in June that included a pathway to citizenship for the approximately 11 million undocumented residents in the United States.
Previously, Tallent advised former Arizona Representative Jim Kolbe, also a Republican immigration reform advocate.
"She has deep knowledge and history with the issue and her hire, coming now in December, signals an expectation they're (House Republicans) going to need her expertise," said Angela Kelley, vice president of immigration policy at the liberal Center for American Progress.
In November 2012, as President Barack Obama won re-election with strong support from Hispanic voters, Boehner acknowledged that Republicans needed to tackle immigration reform.
But he decided to let the Senate go first with a bipartisan bill unveiled early this year that also would jack up spending on border security and would grant work visas to more high-skilled and agriculture workers from abroad.
The bill passed the Democratic-controlled Senate 68-32, leading many immigration groups to conclude that it would sail through the more conservative House.
REPUBLICANS BALK AT BILL
Instead, it sputtered as many House Republicans with few Hispanic or Asian voters in their home districts balked at the wide-ranging legislation and Boehner never put the Senate bill to a vote in the House.
Meanwhile, House committees focused on smaller bills that mainly would enhance border security and prosecute illegal immigrants.
The full House even passed a bill aimed at stopping Obama from granting temporary residency to young people brought illegally into the United States by their parents.
Ana Navarro, a Republican strategist, called Tallent "pragmatic" and "effective." With decades of experience working on immigration policy, Navarro said Tallent "is no pushover. And she seeks solutions, not headlines."
While Boehner has continued to insist that he wants to pass immigration legislation, he has refused to provide specifics on which bits he would advance and when he would seek House votes.
"I think he's been hesitant to provide specifics because he doesn't have them yet," Navarro said, adding, "That's why you hire Becky Tallent."
Nevertheless, with Republicans deeply divided over the issue and with November, 2014, congressional elections on the horizon, it is unclear whether Boehner will be able to win passage of any bills, even with Tallent advising him.
The House will spend much of January either in recess or organizing for the coming year. That could leave only February through May for trying to pass legislation and reconciling it with the Senate before election-year partisanship potentially swamps all major legislative efforts in Congress.
(Editing by Philip Barbara)