President Obama's immigration strategy in limbo

Obama's options for swaying the conservative House majority are limited, at best. | AP Photo


Shortly after the Senate passed an immigration bill late last month, President Barack Obama quizzed House Speaker John Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi during separate telephone calls: What could he do to help the House pass a bill?

The answer still isn’t entirely clear — not even to the White House.

Shortly after the Senate passed an immigration bill late last month, President Barack Obama quizzed House Speaker John Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi during separate telephone calls: What could he do to help the House pass a bill?

The answer still isn’t entirely clear — not even to the White House.

An overtly partisan campaign would spark a backlash, uniting Republicans against the White House and the president’s vision of reform. Obama also can’t engage openly and directly with House Republicans because they don’t want to be seen working with him. At the very least, he will step up his public role by arguing that the economy would benefit from a reform bill and the Republican Party needs it politically.

But beyond that, Obama is waiting on House Republicans to decide what to do next, according to White House officials. And heading into Wednesday’s immigration meeting, the GOP is all over the place — unsure what will pass, when it will pass or if anything will pass at all. Some aren’t sure they want anything to pass.

“The fact that it’s not clear how the president is going to engage is striking, but it is largely a product of the dysfunction in the House,” said Marshall Fitz, a veteran immigration reform strategist who has discussed the president’s next steps with White House officials. “They are jousting with Jell-O.”

The White House will be more active in pressuring the House over the next few months, with the president and Cabinet officials doing speeches and events around the country, according to sources familiar with the administration’s plans.
A senior administration official said the White House is weighing its options and that the strategy depends on how the GOP plays its hand.

If the House makes progress in the next few weeks, Obama is expected to take a more restrained approach, emphasizing policy over politics. But if it becomes clear that the Republican leadership isn’t going to force any kind of bill through the House, Democrats expect Obama to drive up the political cost of inaction. The White House is hoping that others — Republican senators who voted for the bill, GOP establishment figures and party donors and advocacy organizations — take up the political campaign, allowing the president to remain above the fray.

The Republican leadership — namely Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) — prefer small immigration bills rather than the comprehensive approach that the president and Senate have embraced. The Senate and White House have all but ruled out the step-by-step approach. Cantor told a group of reporters in an off-the-record session Monday night that he didn’t feel any pressure to move a bill just because 14 Senate Republicans voted for it. During the session, which POLITICO did not attend, he said he wants to help children who were illegally brought to the U.S. by their parents.

At the same time, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) — whom some lawmakers see as the next speaker of the House — is meeting with House and Senate Republicans to try to find common ground on immigration policy. The meetings, which generally do not include GOP leadership, have been partially focused on identifying the narrow area where Senate Republicans who voted against the bill could find agreement with House Republicans. This could help guide the process in the House.

Ryan has also been canvassing House Republicans, trying to determine where they stand.

There’s peril on every path for Republicans. If they move small-bore bills — like legislation to tighten border security — they could enter into a negotiation with the Senate without a position on key issues like the pathway to citizenship. If they pass a bill with a pathway to legal status, they risk riling their ranks. An increasing number of Republicans have been telling leadership that they could support some pathway to legal status, if the border is deemed secure first.

White House aides have been soliciting advice from congressional leaders, the Gang of Eight and immigration advocates on how to proceed, according to people who have been consulted, although it was not yet clear what message the president would deliver or what tone he would strike.

It shouldn’t be a mystery, House Republicans said.

“The best way they can help right now is if they really want a bill is to stay out of it. Just stay out of it,” said Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.), a member of his party’s leadership. “The more they engage on it, the more they’re going to muddy the water in the process. If they want to stay engaged on what’s happening on the Senate side, they can do that. For us, we’ll work out what we do, and we’ll then negotiate with the Senate on how we can get this done.”

Obama’s recent changes to his health care reform law are entering the immigration debate in unexpected ways, as several GOP lawmakers told POLITICO that they worry about his meddling in existing laws.

“I have a real concern the damage the president did to his credibility when he unilaterally delayed the employer mandate,” said Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), who supports immigration reform. “You’ve got a group of people who think, ‘Gosh, if the president decides not to enforce the law, what’s to say he won’t do that on immigration.’ I worry about the impact that has on immigration reform.”

The self-discovery process for House Republicans on Wednesday is expected to stretch for hours. It will include a presentation from GOP leadership, Homeland Security Committee Chairman Mike McCaul of Texas and Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte of Virginia. Then lawmakers will be given the floor.

The anti-reform voices do have a counter — a handful lawmakers who will suffer greatly if Congress cannot pass a bill. These people should give Obama his greatest hope.

Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.), who represents a heavily Hispanic Central Valley district, said the need for comprehensive reform comes up in “every phone call I make, every town hall. It’s a huge issue in my district.”

“I am concerned with the Republican Party from a national perspective. We have very diverse districts around the entire nation, and I think how we handle the overall immigration issue could have dramatic impacts to the future of the Republican Party. We need to message this right,” Denham said in an interview. “It’s a personal issue for me. I’ve been working on it for years.”

Asked about the Senate bill that his party keeps rejecting, Denham said, “I think the Senate’s done a good job. There are five basic areas of overall immigration reform. I think they hit on almost every area. Border security is the No. 1 priority — we need to get that fixed first.”

Eliseo Medina, secretary-treasurer of the Service Employees International Union, said the GOP’s aversion to Obama shouldn’t dissuade the president from playing a prominent role in the House debate.

“There are some Republicans who if Jesus Christ came down himself and advocated for immigration reform, they wouldn’t go along,” Medina said. “He is the president and he does have a powerful voice and he needs to continue to use it to build support for immigration reform.”

Fitz, who directs immigration policy for the Center for American Progress, said Obama should focus on making a case to the country “not in political terms but in terms of why, for the good of the nation, this has to get done.”

“That is what he is left with,” Fitz said.