President Obama juggles competing issues of immigration and climate

President Barack Obama hosted two groups of lawmakers at the White House Tuesday on a pair of legislative issues that have divided the Democratic Party and competed for his attention.

He met first with a bipartisan group of senators for talks on the way ahead on climate legislation, then sat down with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus on immigration reform.

ADVERTISEMENT
But even as he gives the appearance that he is pushing hard on both hot-button issues this year, strategists and aides on Capitol Hill are skeptical that the president can deliver on either one.

“The White House has not given up hope about getting something done on energy, so in that case it’s not purely for show,” Democratic strategist Dan Gerstein said. “But they also know the odds are slim, and that the president gets a fair amount of points for trying to be bipartisan even when he fails.

“You might call it a form of political health insurance.”

The Senate is not expected to act on immigration this year, and Obama has recognized that for months. He said in April that Congress might not have an “appetite” to move ahead.

Still, Gerstein said, Obama has “no choice” on immigration but “to show to the Hispanic community he is making good-faith fight for their cause to keep them on board for November.”

To that end, he met with grassroots immigration activists at the White House on Monday and is delivering a speech on the issue on Thursday, as his administration prepares to contest in court Arizona’s contentious new immigration law.

Hispanic lawmakers did not address the press at the White House after their Tuesday meeting.

According to a White House readout, Obama addressed “the need to fix our nation’s broken immigration system” and pressed for a bipartisan approach that builds on a Senate bill co-sponsored by Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). He emphasized border security and “accountability from both workers who are here illegally and unscrupulous employers who game the system,” but offered no timeline.

Immigration nearly destroyed the GOP during the 2006 midterms, and most strategists agree with Obama:

There is little desire in either party to pursue reform this year despite the heated debate over the Arizona law.
Progress on energy legislation seems a lot more likely than immigration reform at this point.

The chief architects of the Senate’s climate bill, Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), emerged from the White House session saying the president was firm in his commitment to include carbon limits in an energy package — even while highlighting their willingness, given political realities, to scale those very limits back. No bill can pass without GOP support.

The White House’s strategy continues to be to put the onus on Republicans to come to the table on both issues, claiming that neither can be done until the GOP puts politics aside. But Obama will also have to corral members of his own party.

The two issues have been competing for months. It was the possibility of immigration skipping ahead of climate change on the legislative calendar that derailed the initial push on the Kerry-Lieberman bill. Graham, who had been working on the bill, withdrew his support, saying it was a “cynical political” decision by Democrats to go with immigration first — in an election year.