White House preps fall immigration push
By: Reid J. Epstein and Jonathan Allen
September 27, 2013 08:02 PM EDT
The White House is getting ready to launch a major fall blitz for immigration reform — this time, one that appears to be more about partisanship than partnership with Republicans.
While Washington may be consumed in the latest continuing resolution crisis and debt ceiling drama, it’s also just days away from massive new push on an issue many had written off months ago.
But if the president’s low profile on immigration in the past had been a bow to the reality that Republicans wouldn’t want to join hands with him publicly, the nature of the renewed push suggests the West Wing brain trust isn’t betting much on the prospect that the issue will be resolved in this Congress.
The political imperatives driving the latest immigration effort are clear: Obama can’t just abandon an issue that he promised to deliver on during his last campaign without suffering a major backlash from activists who helped elect him, and congressional Democrats are anxious to make sure Latino voters are motivated to punish Republicans at the polls in the 2014 mid-term election if there’s no law on the books by then.
Still, the effort remains a delicate balancing act for the White House.
Obama needs to keep frustrated activists angry at Republicans, not the White House and its Democratic allies in Congress.
Yet there is still hope in some corners of the White House that using outside interest groups to pressure Republican lawmakers could force the House to act on some form of immigration legislation and begin a conference with the Senate, which passed its version of the bill in June — to sway GOP lawmakers, rather than simply score points with voters.
“The White House and everyone who works here believes that immigration reform can and should get done in this Congress,” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest. “In fact, as the president has said, immigration reform would pass with bipartisan support tomorrow, if only the speaker of the House brought it to the floor for a vote.”
And White House Communications Director Jennifer Palmieri suggested there’s urgency in the West Wing.
“There are no off ramps here,” Palmieri said. “Congress needs to act on the legislation and it is in everyone’s interest that happen as soon as possible.”
The president’s top immigration adviser, Felicia Escobar, has told immigration advocates that the White House will turn to their issue after the battles on government funding and raising the nation’s debt limit, creating what senior administration officials say is a window of opportunity to make progress on the issue. That’s just in time to harmonize with a series of Oct. 5 events across the country organized under the heading of a day of “dignity and respect” and a Washington lobbying effort by an array of pro-reform activists at the end of the month.
The new push comes as the president faces tremendous pressure from the Latino community, a pivotal voting bloc in his re-election, to spend more of his time and energy prodding the House to act on immigration reform.
“He knows it’s important to keep the fight going,” said former Obama Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, who noted that the president ran on enacting an immigration overhaul. “It is still very much a part of his mission and his legacy.”
It’s clear that if Democrats don’t soon show that they’re serious about moving forward on immigration, they risk alienating Latino voters — or, worse for the White House, shifting the ire of activists from House Republicans to the president, who has not used his executive authority to order blanket immunity from deportation for immigrants who came to this country illegally.
But White House officials also say there’s something tangible that could be gained from the push — even if the bill doesn’t ultimately make it to Obama’s desk.
Moving immigration to the front burner could result in enough heat on House Republicans to force action on a small piece of the comprehensive overhaul the Senate passed in June, said one White House official. That official is hopeful that a conference committee could produce an immigration law in this Congress that would include a path to citizenship for the millions of illegal immigrants currently in the country.
And so, whether or not they really think they can win, the White House and Capitol Hill Democrats are preparing to elevate immigration over the next two months, after the big fall fiscal deadlines have passed.
In addition to the planning being done in the West Wing, Obama’s Organizing for Action — which this week installed a new immigration reform director, Pedro Morillas, who ran OFA’s state legislative efforts, to replace Emmy Ruiz, an Obama campaign veteran who left OFA to return to her native Texas — has rallies planned across the country at the offices of House Republicans for Oct. 4-5.
Conservative and business-oriented pro-immigration groups are planning their own day of action for late October, when they will bring to Washington conservatives from across the country to lobby House Republicans to bring the reform bill to a vote.
While his White House played a behind-the-scenes role in the Senate immigration reform bill, Obama remained publicly removed from crafting the legislation. For months, he deferred to Congress, outlining his priorities but allowing legislators to work out the details.
Then last week in his Telemundo interview, Obama said immigration reform is being blocked only by House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) — framing it as a partisan campaign issue in a way he hadn’t since the election.
“The other thing that’s holding it back right now is John Boehner calling it to the floor because we’ve got a majority of members of Congress, Democrats and some Republicans, in the House of Representatives, who would vote for it right now if it hits,” Obama said. “This is really a question that should be directed to Mr. John Boehner. What’s stopping him from going ahead and calling that bill?”
Democrats in Congress are eager to maintain the party’s edge, and Latino voters’ enthusiasm, heading into the 2014 election by echoing Obama’s blaming of Boehner for killing the Senate bill. To that end, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) plans to introduce a comprehensive immigration reform bill by Oct. 5 to ramp up pressure on Boehner and demonstrate her party’s commitment to Latino voters.
But while the president and his congressional allies must insist for public consumption — and even in private meetings with immigrant advocates — that they are optimistic the fall campaign will succeed, there are signs they are realistic about the chances.
“When you walk into McDonough’s office, you see charts on Affordable Care Act implementation and power points on Syria, but you don’t see a lot of immigration,” a senior Democrat involved in strategy discussions said of White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough’s space in the West Wing.
More important, House Republicans say Pelosi’s bill isn’t going anywhere — and they’d be surprised if the expert vote-counter didn’t know that. The White House has made clear it prefers the Senate’s immigration bill and not a new piece of legislation.
“Why do they keep thinking we can be pressured on immigration?” said a senior House GOP aide. “They live in a fantasy world.”
If anything, most House Republicans are getting pressure from their constituents to oppose any bill that includes a path to citizenship for people who came to the United States illegally — a major feature of the Senate-passed bill, the president’s policy, and Pelosi’s still-developing legislation. With 2014 election filing deadlines fast approaching, many of them would court primary challenges by signing onto an Obama immigration-reform effort.
Of course, the pressure points could change in 2015, when House Republican leaders will have an incentive to reposition the party in hopes of helping the GOP nominee for president pick up a higher percentage of Latino votes than John McCain and Mitt Romney did in successive elections against Obama.
“I think the chances of immigration getting done are better than most people think,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), the architect of the strategy to pass the Senate immigration reform bill. “While I can’t predict exactly when or how, there are lots of possible scenarios, but overall there is a desire to get it done in both houses and on both sides of the aisle.”
More immediately, say some reform advocates, the White House can gain a different kind of benefit from focusing attention back on Boehner. That effort will buy time so that the White House doesn’t have to make a decision on what, if any, action to take to expand a deportation exception that has been granted to a certain set of younger Latino immigrants brought to the country illegally by their parents under the deferred action for childhood arrivals (DACA) program.
For now, Obama’s allies are still hopeful that one last push at the end of the year will influence the House GOP.
“I’m optimistic,” Solis said. “I have to be.”