May 24, 2010
by Alexander Bolton
On Tuesday, President Barack Obama will ask Senate Republicans to set aside their objections to his broad immigration goals.
The lunchtime meeting with the GOP conference comes as Senate Democrats and Republicans gird for a battle over immigration during debate on a $58.8 billion emergency supplemental bill.
Republicans such as Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison (Texas) and Jim DeMint (S.C.) may offer amendments to crack down on illegal border crossings by completing a fencing project, or sending aerial drones or National Guard troops to the border.
“We understand there are a handful of amendments planned by Republicans on border security,” said one Democratic aide, who added that the measures would be hard for Democratic senators to vote against.
Tuesday’s meeting provides Obama with an opportunity to both engage with Republicans and ask them to work with him. Senate Republicans have told pro-immigration advocates for weeks that they would not support a comprehensive reform measure until Obama engaged them in a serious way.
“The president is coming up here to talk to Republicans about immigration and to get them on board with moving forward on comprehensive immigration reform,” said a senior Senate Democratic aide.
Even if Obama makes an impassioned call for comprehensive reform, Senate aides doubt it would persuade Republicans to pull back border-security amendments to the supplemental spending bill.
An amendment filed by DeMint would require the administration to complete 700 miles of special double-layer fencing.
An amendment by Hutchison would send unmanned aerial surveillance vehicles to the border.
Democratic leaders are less concerned about the substance of the amendments than about how they might weaken support for passing a comprehensive immigration reform bill.
Strategists worry if the Senate passes stringent border security measures as part of the supplemental, it would weaken the rationale for passing comprehensive reform.
The Democratic aide said Obama could make the case to Republicans that a broad reform bill would address their concerns over border security.
Some pro-immigration activists warn that passage of the border-security amendments by a Democratic-controlled Senate would also send the wrong message to Hispanic voters.
“There’s definitely concern about what kind of amendments may be offered considering the rhetoric surrounding border issues,” said a pro-immigration activist. “There’s a concern over how much people will buy into that rhetoric.”
Democratic Party strategists have long thought that jobs and the economy would be the two biggest issues of the midterm election.
But polling shows that immigration reform could make a difference in battleground states such as Nevada and Colorado.
A new Public Policy Polling (PPP) survey shows that embattled Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) has opened a three-point lead on his Republican challenger because of a shift in Hispanic voters.
The poll attributed the movement to a large shift of Hispanic voters to Bennet since passage of an Arizona law empowering law enforcement to conduct on-the-spot identity checks of suspected illegal immigrants.
“Hispanics in the Mountain West are leaning much more strongly toward the Democrats since the Arizona law was passed,” stated a PPP analysis of the survey.
A White House aide said Obama plans to discuss his agenda, of which energy and climate change legislation and immigration reform have been two of the highest priorities.
“The president expects to have an open exchange about his legislative priorities for the rest of the year,” said the aide.
Obama pursued a similar tactical strategy prior to final passage of sweeping healthcare reform legislation earlier this spring.
The president held a healthcare summit with Republican leaders at the White House in February to discuss their ideas for improving the nation’s healthcare laws.
Pro-immigration activists have been calling on Obama to become more engaged on the issue.
“The only way that we’re going to move forward is if the president leans into this in such a way that Republicans feel the heat,” said Frank Sharry, founder of America’s Voices, a group that supports comprehensive reform.
“The president has not demonstrated the same kind of commitment to this issue that he has shown on other issues,” Sharry said.
Angela Kelley, vice president of immigration policy at the Center for American Progress, said: “I have a hard time seeing this issue move forward without substantial White House leadership.”
Kelley said if Obama only mentions immigration briefly, like he did at the State of the Union address earlier this year, “there will be a lot of disappointed people.”
“If this is a meaty conversation and the president shows ownership of the issue, it could provide considerable momentum, which is needed very badly,” Kelley said.
A Democratic aide said that White House officials initially told Democratic leaders that immigration reform would be the purpose of Tuesday’s meeting. They have since retrenched that expectation.
“The administration is now suggesting it will be one of several topics,” said the aide.
Proponents of comprehensive immigration reform say they hope that Obama will make a concerted push for broad reform at Tuesday’s meeting.
A senior GOP aide said the White House has not identified immigration reform as its No.1 priority for discussion Tuesday.
“It will be a wide-ranging discussion,” said the GOP aide. “The president can talk about anything he wants — it’s supposed to be on a wide range of topics.
“They said it would focus on a number of issues,” said the aide.