Rubio, White House spar over immigration

White House press secretary Jay Carney on Tuesday disputed Sen. Marco Rubio's (R-Fla.) claim that nobody in the White House had ever contacted the lawmaker or his aides about the push for comprehensive immigration reform.

“We have been in contact with everyone involved in this effort on Capitol Hill," Carney said during his press briefing Tuesday.

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Carney's remark came in response to a statement issued earlier in the morning from Rubio's office claiming unequivocally that they had never discussed immigration reform with administration officials.

"Senator Rubio’s office has never discussed immigration policy with anyone in the White House," Rubio spokesman Alex Conant said. "To be clear: That’s fine with us – we actually think Congress should write the policy; not the White House."

Republicans have complained that the White House has not done enough to reach out to Capitol Hill in negotiations over immigration, gun control, and the looming sequester cuts. They accuse Obama of pandering to public opinion with campaign-style events rather than engaging in the hard work of governing.

But the White House disputes that characterization, saying it often keeps conversations with members of Congress private out of deference to the political implications. 

On Tuesday, Carney said White House officials were "mindful of the requests of others" when disclosing meetings between administration and members of Congress.

"We don't read out every meeting or conversation we have with members of Congress," Carney said.

Later Tuesday, a senior administration official said that the White House had conducted at least five meetings with staff members from the so-called "Gang of Eight," including a representative from Rubio's office.

Conant subsequently confirmed the meetings on Twitter, but described the interactions as a one-way briefing on efforts by the Obama administration, rather than an open forum to solicit feedback.

"We double checked ... WH never asked for our input," Conant wrote. "They sent agency officials to brief gang of 8, but didn't ask for input or discuss policy."

During an interview last weekend with ABC News, White House chief of staff Dennis McDonough also disputed Republicans who claimed they had not been contacted about immigration reform.

"We've been working with all the members up there. We have our staff working this very aggressively with their staffs and with the members, and we're working this very aggressively, as you think we would with such a high priority for the country," McDonough said. "This immigration system is broken. Border security, we've made great progress for the last four years. We want to build on that. And we're going to continue to work with Sen. Rubio and others on this."

Negotiations over an immigration deal seemed imperiled over the weekend with the apparent leak of the White House immigration plan, developed separately from the bipartisan group in the Senate. Rubio and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) reacted angrily to the release, saying the president's plan endangered progress in the Senate and had little chance of passing.

The White House bill would allow the nation's illegal immigrants to apply for a new class of visa that would allow them to legally live or work in the U.S. Immigrants could apply to become legal permanent residents within eight years, with an eventual pathway to citizenship.

Republicans have said that plan would allow illegal immigrants to unfairly jump ahead of those applying to enter the country legally.

Janet Murguía, head of the National Council of La Raza, an Hispanic civil rights group, said there's "some legitimacy" to Rubio's criticisms of Obama, but was quick to add that it's also "legitimate and appropriate" for the president to remind lawmakers that he'll push his own reforms if Congress fails to reach a deal on its own.

She characterized the partisan barbs as "healthy tensions" that put pressure on both sides to secure comprehensive reforms this year.

"Both appear committed," she said.


-This post was updated at 3:54 p.m. Mike Lillis contributed.