Obama hands off push on immigration

President Obama has no plans to launch an aggressive public push to pressure House Republicans to move on immigration reform, even though a win on the issue is seen as critical to the success of his second term. [WATCH VIDEO]

Democratic strategists and GOP aides argue it would be smart politics for Obama to stay on the sidelines because pressure from the president could be counter-productive. It could also make Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) job more difficult.

“The last thing he needs to do is antagonize our folks and make this personal and any more emotional of an issue than it already is,” one senior GOP aide said of Obama.

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Republican lawmakers are cool to the Senate bill and feel no pressure to move legislation with a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Most represent  congressional districts with small Hispanic populations and feel more pressure to oppose the bill than support it.

They also aren’t interested in giving Obama a legislative victory they know he desires.

“I don’t think the White House has a lot of real public options,” said one top Democratic strategist. “The only way the president can pull off a win is really by staying out of it. There’s nothing he can do himself publicly to push the hand of Republicans.”


A quieter approach paid dividends for Obama in the Senate, where a bipartisan group of eight senators negotiated and promoted the immigration bill, which was approved in a 68-32 vote last week.

To win in the House, the White House may have to count on Boehner, who is under enormous pressure from conservatives in his conference worried he will look to move a bill with Democratic support.

Boehner last week made it crystal clear he would not move any immigration legislation, including a conference report, that was not supported by a majority of House Republicans.

The GOP aide suggested a public push by Obama would only make Boehner’s balancing act on the issue more difficult.

“The Speaker has been careful not to weigh in too heavily on the policy details …  because he recognizes his role is to foster dialogue and bipartisan cooperation rather than draw lines and push his will on the House,” the aide said.

The White House is in wait-and-see mode with Boehner, a senior administration official said.

White House aides want to see how the Speaker handles the red-hot issue now that it is squarely in the House. Initial clues will come after July 10, when the House GOP holds a conference-wide private meeting to discuss the issue.

Obama also has other options to increase the pressure on Republicans, including relying on business groups that back the Senate bill.

To be sure, the White House isn’t ruling anything out in terms of strategy.

While Obama has “nothing on the books” in terms of public events on immigration, his outreach strategy “depends on how Speaker Boehner reacts to the pressure he’s currently facing,” the senior administration official said.

Future events, including interviews with Spanish-language television networks, are “not out of the realm of possibility,” the senior administration official said.

Obama took an aggressive public approach on several legislative battles, including healthcare reform, extending the payroll tax cut, the fiscal cliff and most recently gun control.

But the pressure on gun control didn’t work in the Senate, and the healthcare pressure came when Democrats held the House and Senate.

On the other issues, Obama had more leverage because House inaction on the payroll tax cuts and fiscal cliff debates would have meant higher taxes for almost every U.S. household.

“There is not an enormous amount the White House can do,” said Chris Lehane, another Democratic strategist, when it comes to immigration.

“The more he gets involved, the worse it’s going to be,” said Ron Bonjean, a Republican strategist who served as a top GOP aide to former House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). “All he’s going to do is tick off Republican lawmakers because it will be a clear signal that he’s looking to politicize the process. That will guarantee its failure.”

So far, even some GOP lawmakers say Obama’s approach on immigration has been the right one.

Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho), a frequent critic of Obama who has voiced skepticism about his sincerity on immigration, praised the president’s low-key role to date. “For now, I think the president is doing the right thing,” Labrador said. “I don’t have too many complaints.”

This week, while traveling in Africa, Obama did weigh in on the immigration debate after a reporter asked him to comment on the Senate’s passage of the immigration legislation, which includes a pathway to citizenship.

“The ball is in the House’s court,” Obama said at a news conference on Saturday. “I do urge the House to try to get this done before the August recess. There’s more than enough time … Now’s the time.”

One reason House Republicans have little incentive to move on the issue is that so many members hail from congressional districts with few Hispanic constituents. The U.S. Census Bureau tallies that in more than 140 GOP districts, Hispanics make up less than 10 percent of voters.

Those realities have left Obama supporters down.

“They’ll push this to the end of the year, and the closer it is to 2014, the more likely it dies,” one Democratic strategist said. “The only reason to push it off to the next calendar year is to kill it.”

— Russell Berman contributed to this report.

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