President Obama urges lawmakers to act quickly on immigration reform

President Obama on Tuesday urged Congress to seize political momentum and act quickly on a comprehensive overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws that would include a pathway to citizenship for the nation’s estimated 11 million illegal immigrants.

“We can’t allow immigration reform to get bogged down in an endless debate,” Obama said in an address in Nevada, a state where Hispanic voters have shown their muscle. “We’ve been debating this for a long time.”

Obama has said his biggest first-term failure was not getting comprehensive immigration reform done, and the White House has since pushed the issue to the forefront of his second-term agenda. 

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While the president is also pursuing an ambitious package of gun-control measures, immigration has much more bipartisan support. And a deal to hike the debt ceiling has created a pause in Washington’s budget wars, presenting an opening for immigration. 

Obama on Tuesday applauded progress made by a bipartisan group of senators who this week released agreed-upon principles that could serve as a framework for legislation. 

Much of the group’s principles mirror Obama’s, and politicians on both sides of the aisle appear to agree Congress faces its best opportunity to fix a broken immigration system since bipartisan efforts collapsed in 2006 and 2007. 

Yet the tricky politics of immigration have created divisions in both parties for decades, raising questions about whether the new effort will succeed. 

Obama on Tuesday signaled he intends to let Congress take the lead in the delicate game of legislating, but warned he would send his own proposals to Capitol Hill if lawmakers do not move forward soon. 

“If Congress is unable to act in a timely fashion, I will send up a bill based on my proposal and insist that they vote on it right away,” Obama said. 

The warning and event highlighted Obama’s use of public, campaign-style events to pressure lawmakers into action, a strategy the White House used in the recent fight to raise upper-income tax rates. 

The president also outlined key differences between the bipartisan Senate group’s principles and his own.  While Obama and the Senate group both say they would strengthen border security, only the Senate group would make tougher border security a precondition to citizenship for the nation’s illegal immigrants — a key demand for Republicans.

“For comprehensive immigration reform to work, it must be clear from the outset that there is a pathway to citizenship,” Obama said Tuesday.

The president also wants an eventual law to treat same-sex partnerships the same as heterosexual marriages, a demand that will be difficult for Republicans to accept. 

“The president believes that it should be included, and that should come as no surprise,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said Tuesday. He said Obama “has long believed that Americans with same-sex partners from other countries should not be faced with the painful choice between staying with the person they love or staying in the country they love.”

Obama did not mention same-sex relationships in his address, but made equal rights for gay people a hallmark of his second-term agenda in last week’s inaugural address. 

A spokesman for Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who has voiced optimism that a deal on immigration can be reached, warned Obama should avoid dragging the debate to the left as Congress seeks an immigration deal. 

“There are a lot of ideas about how best to fix our broken immigration system,” Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck said. “Any solution should be a bipartisan one, and we hope the president is careful not to drag the debate to the left and ultimately disrupt the difficult work that is ahead in the House and Senate.”

Republicans are keen to move on immigration reform after a 2012 presidential election that saw them lose more than 70 percent of the Hispanic vote to Obama.

Both parties will want to take credit for an immigration deal, which also threatens the delicate balance necessary to strike a deal.

Obama on Tuesday, for example, repeatedly sought to frame the Senate’s bipartisan compromise as a reflection of the plan he articulated during the campaign.

Republicans suggested Obama could hurt the bill’s passage in an attempt to grab credit. “It certainly would poison the well with a lot of Republicans,” Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) told CNBC on Tuesday.

But White House officials say they believe the best way to move Congress is for Obama to make a direct case with the public. And the president saw the power of the bully pulpit as he outlined the major goals of his immigration plan: creating a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants; increasing visas available to skilled workers; implementing an employer verification program; and creating a guest-worker program for laborers and agricultural workers.

“This is not just a debate about policy. It’s about people. It’s about men and women, and young people who want nothing more than to earn their way into the American story,” Obama said.

As Obama outlined each of the goals, the predominantly Hispanic Las Vegas high school cheered loudly and showered the president with chants of “Sí, se puede” — the Spanish translation of Obama’s “Yes, we can” campaign slogan.

The president will continue to press his case Wednesday, with sit-down interviews scheduled with Univision and Telemundo.


— Published at 1:57 p.m. and last updated at 8:31 p.m.

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