WASHINGTON — On Friday, President Obama called Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner and told them he wants immigration reform passed through the House. That's about the most he can do to see that it actually happens.
Like the rest of Washington, Obama and his team are playing the waiting game to see if Boehner's House Republican caucus will risk alienating vocal parts of its base and follow the Democratic-controlled Senate in passing comprehensive immigration reform. The legislation may be a top goal for the White House team in the second term, but now it's up to a body that has no interest in making Obama look good. Observers say the best thing he can do is try to reinforce the idea that Republicans have no logical political option besides supporting a pathway to citizenship, though there's a divide over how exactly to do it.
Republicans who favor immigration reform say that the best thing Obama can do is stay as far away from the process as possible. Other pro-reform advocates say Obama will play a role in pressuring the House, but doubt he can do much beyond banging on the bully pulpit.
That's no small power, says Frank Sharry, executive director of the pro-reform group America's Voice. The president can use public statements to essentially box Republicans in on immigration reform, by promising to "wage an all out effort to further tarnish the GOP brand with Latino voters" if the House blocks immigration reform. He adds that Obama can use his executive powers to "take sweeping [action] to protect millions of undocumented immigrants with relief from deportation and work permits."
"In other words," Sharry said, "make the consequences so clear that those in the House GOP that want to save the party from itself can win the internal argument that allowing reform to be enacted is much better from a policy and political perspective than blocking it."
Mario Lopez, president of the Hispanic Leadership Fund, a pro-reform Republican group, advised Obama to tread very lightly, and probably just steer clear of the House fight all together.
"Unless they make a good faith effort to productively engage Members of the House to address border security issues, President Obama and the White House should stay out of it," he said.
In the Senate, Obama played a delicate dance with the bipartisan group that crafted the immigration bill that passed with a 68-vote majority this week. As Republicans on the Gang of Eight worked to rally their party colleagues around the bill, Obama largely stayed out of the direct negotiations so Republicans weren't stuck selling "Obama's bill."
It's a different story in the House. Obama has signed on to the Senate bill, and is of course a strong proponent of its most controversial aspect in the minds of conservatives: a pathway to citizenship for the millions of undocumented workers already in the US. House Republicans know they're doing something Obama wants if they pass immigration reform that includes that provision.
Obama hopes outside pressure will guide the majority of House Republicans to his side on the issue.
"Now is the time when opponents will try their hardest to pull this bipartisan effort apart so they can stop commonsense reform from becoming a reality," Obama said in his statement congratulating the Senate on passing reform last week. "We cannot let that happen. If you're among the clear majority of Americans who support reform...reach out to your Member of Congress. Tell them to do the right thing."
Some immigration advocates BuzzFeed spoke with said Obama's power to keep the national conversation about immigration reform will be key to forcing the House GOP to pass immigration reform, or let reform pass with Democratic votes. The caucus shows no real interest in doing either thing so far.
The call to Pelosi and Boehner shows the president is trying to work behind the scenes to pass reform, too, though it's not clear what tactics he's using. A congressional aide connected with the bipartisan House group crafting an immigration bill told BuzzFeed the White House hasn't done much beyond checking in regularly about the progress of the talks.
On Monday, the White House pushed immigration while the president is in Africa, highlighting a report by the Social Security actuary showing immigration reform will "strengthen Social Security solvency," again highlighting what proponents say will be the positive fiscal impact of reform. That's a message supporters hope will resonate with deficit-focused House Republicans, and it's one that helped keep the bipartisan reform coalition together in the Senate.
Travelling with the president in Africa Friday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney wouldn't reveal exactly how Obama hopes to pressure the House to act on immigration, but said that the White House is working hard to get it done.
"We'll obviously work with the House in the same way that we worked with the Senate, which is to make clear what our principles are and to provide the significant amount of policy expertise that we have, and data that we have, and to be as helpful to the process as we can," Carney said. "I'm not going to plot out a strategy for you."
Meanwhile, Democrats on the campaign side of things are preparing to apply direct pressure to House Republicans they think are most vulnerable in the event immigration reform fails in the House. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has targeted 23 members with immigration messaging as part of that effort.
What exact role the White House can play efforts like that unclear.
"There's always something the White House can do," one Democratic strategist said. "I honestly don't have any good ideas."
Evan McMorris-Santoro is the White House correspondent for BuzzFeed News.
Contact Evan McMorris-Santoro at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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