WASHINGTON — As a fragile bipartisan effort to pass sweeping immigration legislation through the Senate reaches the final stretch, President Obama, who has been deliberately absent from the debate until now, has reemerged, hoping to cross the finish line along with the lawmakers who have championed the bill.
But Republicans who favor reform are eyeing the president's last-minute immigration push warily, worried that his presence in the process could threaten the delicate compromises Republicans and Democrats have made over the past several months.
"Mr. Obama adds nothing to the immigration debate at this point — not from a ideological perspective or tactical log-rolling perspective — and his entry at this point can only upset the tenuous balance negotiators are trying to create," said Jonathan Collegio, spokesperson for American Crossroads. The Karl Rove-founded campaign spending group is running ads in support of the Gang of Eight immigration bill currently working its way through the Senate.
Collegio said the process has a better chance of succeeding without the president's help.
"If he had a record of bringing folks on the hill together this entry would make sense, but Obama is clearly the least skilled congressional negotiator since Carter and his very presence will only hurt the work taking place on Capitol Hill," he said.
While Obama has stayed out of the immigration fray publicly this year, White House officials have been working on the bill behind the scenes, making phone calls and holding private meetings with various stakeholders to try to get a deal done. Supporters of the president have argued letting Congress work out the bill was the best idea for the time, keeping Obama — the GOP's favorite political enemy — as far away from the debate as possible.
But that stance changed this week as Obama began pushing for the Gang of Eight bill specifically, tying himself to the legislation in a way that makes some of the bill's Republican supporters nervous. On Saturday, Obama touted the bill in his weekly address to the nation, and on Tuesday he held a high-profile event at the White House. Obama gave the bill a shoutout.
"The bill before the Senate isn't perfect. It's a compromise. Nobody will get everything they want – not Democrats, not Republicans, not me," Obama said Saturday. "But it is a bill that's largely consistent with the principles I've repeatedly laid out for commonsense immigration reform."
In a speech Tuesday, Obama focused on DREAMers, the undocumented immigrants brought to America as children. Behind him was a bipartisan coalition of leaders, including the presidents of the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber Of Commerce. Both groups are supporting immigration reform, and Obama hopes their faces on the bill will make it easier for Congress to support it.
As they try to piece together a coalition in support of comprehensive reform legislation that many in the the GOP base don't want, Republicans don't think Obama's touting the bill will help them get it over the finish line. But they do think that the president could help by telling Democrats to accept amendments they don't want in order to make the immigration bill more House GOP-friendly.
"Without President Obama engaged, immigration reform is now on track in the Senate and is moving forward in the House," said Emily Benavides, a spokesperson for the American Action Network, another Republican spending group pushing for an immigration bill. "Reform would stand a much better chance if he devoted his time not to campaign-like posturing but to convincing his old colleagues in the Senate to support some very common sense amendments to strengthen the legislation currently being considered."
Ana Navarro, the Republican strategist and director of Hispanic outreach for John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign, said it's up to Republicans to convince their peers to vote for immigration reform, and that there's little difference the president can make in the negotiations at this point.
"The president has little if any leverage with Republicans not already on board with immigration reform. Getting the Republican votes we need on immigration is our headache and challenge," she said. "President Obama has one job, making sure the Red State Democrats are voting yes."
Obama's allies said it's too late for Republicans to blame reform failure on Obama. Gabriela Domenzain, Hispanic outreach spokesperson for Obama's 2012 campaign, said that it made sense for Obama "to stay 100% away" from early direct negotiations, but with the bill written and under debate with a bipartisan stamp of approval, it's time for Obama to put pressure on Congress.
"There's no way that the Republicans can blame opposition on the fact that it's the president's bill," Domenzain said. Americans, who polling shows want immigration reform, won't have a nuanced take on Republican opposition, she said. Defeat of immigration reform will be blamed on blanket opposition to Obama, she said, not on anything Obama did.
"The president could propose more sunshine the House will oppose it," she said.