WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama made a plea for Republican cooperation on immigration Thursday, seeking common ground by year’s end in the aftermath of the divisive partial government shutdown. Yet prospects for success this year remain a long shot even as a handful of House GOP lawmakers push for more limited measures.
Obama’s renewed focus on immigration comes amid mounting criticism of the White House over computer problems that have plagued insurance enrollment under the 3-year-old health care law. It also comes nearly four months since a bipartisan majority in the Senate passed a comprehensive immigration bill that would tighten border security and provide a path to citizenship for the 11 million immigrants living here illegally.
“Rather than create problems, let’s prove to the American people that Washington can actually solve some problems,” Obama said during an event devoted to immigration at the White House.
The Senate measure has stalled in the House, where most Republicans reject a comprehensive approach and many question offering citizenship to people who broke U.S. immigration laws to be in this country.
Still, White House officials say they believe that the partial government shutdown, rather than poisoning the political atmosphere, may have created an opportunity for collaboration with Republicans seeking to repair their image, which polls show took a hit during the prolonged fight over financing the government and extending the nation’s borrowing limit.
Moreover, Obama made a point of underscoring support for an immigration bill from the members of the business community, traditional Republican allies who criticized GOP tactics that led to the partial shutdown and to brinkmanship over a potentially economy-jarring default on U.S. debt.
The White House took notice when Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, indicated on Wednesday that he was hopeful that immigration legislation could be done before year’s end.
But Republican strategists also say the most opportune time to act might not come until after next year’s 2014 primary elections, when lawmakers will be freer to vote without fear of having to run against a more conservative challenger.
And while Obama called for the House to pass a large bill that could then be reconciled with the Senate version, House Republicans want to approach any changes in piecemeal fashion, a process that at best would push any significant progress into next year.
Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck said Thursday that the House “will not consider any massive, Obamacare-style legislation that no one understands.” He said the House is committed to a deliberate, “step-by-step approach.”
“Obviously, there is no appetite for one big bill,” Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart told a group of reporters Wednesday night. The Florida Republican, who had been a member of the unsuccessful bipartisan “gang of eight,” is working with other Republicans on a set of bills that would allow undocumented immigrants to “get right with the law.”
Diaz-Balart avoided using the word “legalization” because it has become so politically fraught.
Arguments that the issue is a political drag on the GOP that will undermine the party’s chances in the 2016 presidential election have failed to sway rank-and-file Republicans, who are responding to the demands of base GOP voters in their districts rather than the nation’s changing demographics.
In an Associated Press-GfK poll conducted in early October, 52 percent said they favored providing a legal way for illegal immigrants already in the United States to become citizens, while 44 percent said they opposed such a plan. Most Democrats in the survey backed the idea (70 percent favored it, 29 percent opposed), while independents were divided, 45 percent in favor and 41 percent opposed. Republicans broke against it, with 34 percent in favor and 65 percent opposed.
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., is working on his own measure to provide temporary status for some immigrants in the country illegally.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., and Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., are focused on legislation to deal with immigrants brought to the country illegally as children. The Judiciary Committee moved forward with individual, single-issue immigration bills before the August recess, but the full House has taken no action on the measures.
Responding to Obama, Goodlatte rejected the comprehensive Senate approach and insisting on piecemeal measures that address enforcement, border security and the appropriate legal status for those immigrants here illegally.
“We don’t need another massive, Obamacare-like bill that is full of surprises and dysfunction after it becomes law,” he said in a statement, echoing Boehner’s office.
Diaz-Balart also underscored another challenge — the GOP insistence that any measure brought to the House floor have the support of a majority of Republicans. With 231 Republicans in the House now, that means at least 115 GOP members.
“We have to get the majority of the majority to move forward,” Diaz-Balart said. “It’s also mathematically that we’re going to need Democratic votes.”