White House strategy for winning immigration fight comes with some risks

The White House plans to use an inside-outside game to pressure Congress as it seeks a political victory for President Obama on immigration reform.

The inside game includes meetings with key stakeholder groups, such as one this week with Asian American and Pacific Islander leaders. In recent days, the meetings have gained steam with Obama holding at least one meeting per week, according to White House guidance of the president's schedule.

It also includes Obama’s second-term “charm offensive” with members of Congress, in which Obama, who needs an immigration win to help solidify his second term legacy, has used dinner dates and golf outings to engage with his political opponents.

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“We want to make sure we don’t lose any Democrats and work with Republicans to move this forward,” one senior administration official said.

At the same time, Obama is expected to pressure Congress from the outside by hitting the road in the next few months, one administration official said.

Obama will crisscross the country in the coming months to build public pressure on Congress, emphasizing the need for a comprehensive immigration bill and a path to citizenship for the more than 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country.

This outside pressure, however, comes with some risks for a president who governs over a divided country.

If Obama wants to make progress, some Republicans suggest he should stay out of the immigration debate —at least for the time being.

“The president engaging is not helpful at this stage,” said Matt Mackowiak, a Republican strategist. “Ninety-five percent of Democrats will vote for this. This is now about how many Republicans he can get. But the president engaging on this will only make it harder for conservative Republicans to be for it. It’s the exact reason why [Sen.] Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) hasn’t been going to the White House that much or locking arms with the president.

The White House feels emboldened to keep up some public pressure given the desire by many Republicans to push immigration over the finish line.

Unlike the recent battle over gun control, the White House is banking on the fact that Republicans need an immigration win on the heels of the 2012 election.

Seventy-one percent of the Latino vote went for Obama in the 2012 election, compared to 27 percent for Republican Mitt Romney. That’s the lowest percentage for a GOP presidential candidate in the last three elections.

“That’s what keeps this [issue] separate from the debate over the fiscal cliff and guns,” said the administration official. “It’s in their political incentive to get this done.”

High profile Republicans like Jeb Bush—a contender for the 2016 presidential race—have said the GOP needs a fundamental makeover on issues like immigration. “Way too many people believe Republicans are anti-immigrant,” Bush declared at the Conservative Political Action Conference annual dinner in March.

Still, Republicans warn their party still includes many opponents to reform, and that Obama could pull a defeat from the jaws of victory with too aggressive an approach.

“This battle is going to be won on the Hill,” Mackowiak added. “The White House has no role to play in that.”

Cal Jillson, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University agreed, saying Obama has to keep a comfortable distance from the issue.

“It’s a delicate thing because conservatives in the House are allergic to Obama,” Jillson said. “A full court press might not serve him well so he’s got to figure out exactly what his posture will be.”

Jillson argues the inside game, however, could help carry the legislation over the top in the Senate, with 70 or more Senators voting in support of it.

“It’s sensible for the president to work carefully with persuadable Republicans to get this done,” Jillson said. “The difficulty he faces is the more he stakes his political capital on this issue, the more the Tea Party conservatives in the House won’t let him have this.

“The real question is how forward can he be without raising the temperature of Republicans in the House," he added.

Jillson and other observers predict that if the Senate does pass the legislation, it’ll put some pressure on the House to follow suit.

Even Republicans agree that Obama’s efforts to reach across the aisle might help pass immigration. But it also might have come a little too late.

“It’s probably leading to more fruitful discussions,” Mackowiak said. “But it’s one of those things that probably should have happened in his first or second year. You have to plant those seeds, water it and watch them grow.”