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With terrorism now part of debate, key Obama agenda item faces new questions

With the defeat of gun control legislation in the Senate and prospects for a grand bargain on the budget an iffy prospect at best, President Barack Obama's second-term agenda is facing an inflection point on another of his top priorities -- immigration reform.

The carefully choreographed, broad bipartisan agreement by the Senate's so-called "Gang of Eight" has been months in the making, and there are fresh concerns about its course forward in the wake of last week's terror attacks in Boston.

The marathon bombings have at least partly refocused the debate on the risk of would-be terrorists entering the United States. On Tuesday, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano will testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on border security, with fresh questions being asked about who is allowed into the country and why.

The same committee produced fireworks during a Monday hearing, when the panel's chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., suggested that some unnamed opponents of the bipartisan immigration overhaul are using the Boston attack to sidetrack the bill. 

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, takes exception to a remark made by Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., during Monday's Senate immigration bill hearing.

"Let no one be so cruel as to try to use the heinous acts of these two young men last week to derail the dreams and futures of millions of hard-working people," Leahy said.  

At one point in the hearing, ranking Republican Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa reacted angrily to what he thought were suggestions from Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., that he might be using the Boston bombings to try to delay or kill the bill.

Grassley snapped, "I never said that," before being reassured the comment was not directed at him.

Reform opponents have argued that the Boston attack is one reason to at least slow down the process, but the overall impact on immigration remains uncertain.  

Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky voiced such concerns in a letter to Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, saying that Congress should not proceed with the bill "until we understand the specific failures of our immigration system."  

Senate aides say privately that it’s too early to tell how the aftermath of the bombings will affect pending legislation on Capitol Hill.

There’s likely to be some focus on why the FBI didn’t more carefully track bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev after he returned from a trip to Russia.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., called for hearings on the subject -- but he said the problem could be with the law, not with the actions the FBI took.

White House spokesman Jay Carney emphasizes that the Obama administration supports immigration reform as it relates to strengthening America's national security.

On Tuesday, Napolitano is likely to face some questions that she wouldn’t have fielded prior to the attacks which killed three people and injured more than 200.

Naturalized U.S. citizen Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, whose family was given asylum, was charged Monday with using a weapon of mass destruction for his alleged role in the bombings.

Among the questions Napolitano may face:

  • Do the rules on granting asylum and refugee status to people need to be re-examined?
  • What’s the right balance to strike between granting asylum to people who fear that they’ll be the victims of persecution in their home country and keeping out of the United States people who pose a risk of committing terrorist acts?
  • Are changes needed to the avenues through which foreigners who are intent on terrorist plots enter the country, such as student visas which the Sept. 11 hijackers used?

Napolitano delivered her testimony last week before the Senate Homeland Security and Government Operations Committee before the suspects in the Boston bombings had been identified.

She told that committee last week, “We are greatly encouraged” by the bill that was introduced by the group of eight senators, led by Schumer and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., which she said “embraces the principles the president has enunciated.”

Evan Vucci / AP

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, April 18, 2013.

She said “comprehensive immigration reform will help us continue to build on” the Obama administration’s border security efforts and enable her department “to further focus existing resources on criminals, on human smugglers and traffickers and national security threats.”

But she got into a sharp exchange with McCain when he asked her why her department had no measurement or index of whether U.S. borders were being made more secure.

McCain told her, “One of the big problems we have is that you abandoned the metric of operational control and you have not given us a border security index.”

She told McCain, “There are so many ways to measure” border security and “that's a much more difficult question to answer than it is to ask.”

She added, “The notion that there's some magic number out there that answers the question, I wish I could tell you there is, but we haven't found it yet.”

NBC's Kasie Hunt and Vaughn Ververs contributed to this report.

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