By Sam Youngman and Molly K. Hooper - 07/01/10 04:20 PM EDT
President Barack Obama attempted Thursday to put the onus for passing immigration reform on Republicans, noting that former President George W. Bush supported an approach similar to the one he is advocating.
Speaking on the issue at American University, Obama said, “Despite the courageous leadership in the past shown by many Democrats and some Republicans — including, by the way, my predecessor, President Bush — [demagoguery] has been the custom. That is why a broken and dangerous system that offends our most basic American values is still in place.”
The president fauted Arizona and other states for passing “ill-conceived” immigration laws, but acknowledged that the “system is broken, and everybody knows it.”
He said that “we cannot solve this problem” without GOP support.
Seeking a middle ground, Obama used his speech to condemn proposals that amount to amnesty and the idea that it is possible or wise to “round up and deport 11 million people.”
On “blanket” amnesty, Obama said a forgiveness approach would send a bad signal to people who are waiting to immigrate legally, and that it “could lead to a surge in more illegal immigration.”
While Obama voiced his desire to see bill passed, he tipped his hand by not laying down a deadline for Congress to meet.
In the past, particularly during the healthcare debate, Obama and his advisers repeatedly set deadlines.
Last summer, for instance, Obama said “that if you don’t set deadlines in this town, things don’t happen. The default position is inertia.”
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, speaking after the president’s speech on Thursday, sought to deflect questions about the absence of deadlines, saying that “we know Washington can do this.”
Until Republicans show some willingness to step up and join Democrats in pursuing reform, Gibbs said, there is little hope of accomplishing anything.
Obama has previously laid out deadlines for immigration reform. On the presidential campaign trail, Obama promised to pass a reform bill in 2009. He later vowed to pass an immigration measure this year, but has not talked about immigration nearly as much as healthcare, energy or the stimulus package.
Obama said the Arizona law, which allows police to ask suspected illegal immigrants for identification if they are stopped for other reasons, has “fanned the flames of an already contentious debate.”
“I recognize the sense of compassion that drives this argument,” Obama said. “But I believe such an indiscriminate approach is both unwise and unfair.”
The lone Republican lawmaker invited to sit in the audience for the event, Arizona Rep. Jeff Flake, was irritated by Obama’s tone.
Flake told The Hill he is “pessimistic” that the president intended to forge a bipartisan solution for comprehensive immigration reform.
“He really took shots at Republicans, unnecessarily. It seemed to be pandering to the [Democratic] base rather than a meaningful attempt to enact comprehensive reform,” Flake said.
Flake co-sponsored bipartisan, bicameral comprehensive immigration reform package with the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) in 2006.
The president called for comprehensive legislation that would require illegal immigrants to pay a fine and learn English.
Obama pointed out that some Republicans have previously supported such a measure, but wondered “whether we will have the courage and the political will to pass a bill through Congress, to finally get it done.”
That message didn’t sit well with Rep. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.), who accused the president of going off on an “angry rant. It clearly was not calling the nation to solve this problem. It was an angry rant.”
Obama scored points, however, with Gutierrez.
The Chicago-based lawmaker disputed the notion that the president was playing to the base, saying, “There were no applause lines.
“My first visceral reaction was, ‘Where’s the passion?’ but then I said [to myself], ‘Hey, dummy, this speech isn’t for you,’ and then I said, ‘I get it, this speech is to expand’ ” to new constituencies, Gutierrez said.