The White House will let Congress take the lead on crafting immigration legislation even as President Obama heads to Nevada on Tuesday to begin a public campaign on the issue.
Senior administration officials said Monday that they were surprised by the progress a bipartisan group of senators has made on the issue, and that the White House is willing to sit on legislative language it's been developing since 2009 as long as Congress appears to be making progress towards a comprehensive plan.
“What you'll see tomorrow from the president is the very important part of this effort that is about engaging the American people," White House press secretary Jay Carney said Monday.
Obama and the White House face a delicate balancing act in the weeks and months ahead.
The president has promised to move forward on the issue and will want to take credit for an eventual deal, but also doesn’t want to poison the well with Republicans as lawmakers work to reach an agreement that can win approval in both chambers.
Obama also must contend with an ambitious group of senators — including a possible 2016 presidential candidate in Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) — who are eager to put their stamp on a deal.
The best way to move Congress, the White House believes, is for Obama to make a direct case to the public, as he did in the battle over allowing tax rates on wealthier households to expire, and in a fight last year over extending the payroll tax cut. Congress eventually moved on both issues.
Obama will lay out a series of proposals he campaigned on that are similar to the Senate plan, but will also fill in some additional specifics, officials said. He will press legislators to take action quickly, although he is not expected to insist on a specific timeline.
Senior administration officials see a shifting calculus on immigration reform, with Republicans more willing to sign off on a package that would include a pathway to citizenship for the nation’s estimated 11 million illegal immigrants.
Obama won seven of 10 Hispanic voters in 2012, and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), one of the Senate negotiators, said Monday that elections are moving his party to take action on the issue.
The principles unveiled by McCain and the other senators would provide a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants, but would make it contingent on increased border security.
Officials at the White House said that they had already implemented border-security measures that McCain had requested during the last round of immigration negotiations. Moreover, they said the president believed that a path to citizenship needed to be clear from the outset, so as not to confuse the requirements for the millions who would seek legal status.
The White House also strongly opposes an approach favored by many House Republicans that would break the immigration package into smaller pieces for a vote. Asked during his press briefing Monday if the president would support a standalone bill to expand work visas, Carney briskly responded, "The president supports comprehensive immigration reform."
Nevertheless, administration officials said Monday they were encouraged by the progress out of the Senate. Still, they stressed it was only the first step in a long road to comprehensive reform.
"We will be working with Congress, with both houses, both parties to help bring about a result that is a detailed, specific bill that can win bipartisan support in Congress and that this president can sign," Carney said.