Obama: Immigration bill coming soon
By: Amie Parnes
June 25, 2009 06:19 PM EST
President Obama vowed on Thursday to immediately begin negotiations to craft comprehensive immigration reform, with the goal of passing legislation in Congress later this year or early next year.
In a meeting with Democratic and Republican lawmakers, Obama said all parties at the table were far from reaching consensus on an immigration overhaul, but he said they were in agreement that the current system is “broken and needs fixing.”
Obama said his administration has already taken steps to make the border more secure. But he said the American public is not yet convinced that immigration problems — including illegal border crossings, undocumented workers and the stress they put on public services such as health care and education — can be fixed.
“It’s going to require some heavy lifting, it’s going to require a victory or practicality and common sense and good policy making over short-term politics,” he said.
Some immigration reform advocates, who gave Obama strong backing in his election campaign and have expressed concern that the topic has been overtaken by other administration priorities, said they were gratified that the issue now seems to be on the agenda.
“We see the meeting today as ringing the opening bell on comprehensive immigration reform,” said Clarissa Martinez, director of immigration and national campaigns for the National Council of La Raza, a Latino advocacy group. “The economy and health care have always been issues that are essential, but we believe that you can do more than one thing at one time.”
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who is expected to introduce the immigration legislation in the coming months, called Thursday’s meeting “a real shot in the arm.”
In the hour-long meeting at the White House, Obama praised John McCain (R-Ariz.), his opponent in the 2008 presidential election who often bucked the GOP by calling for immigration reform, saying he “has already paid a significant political cost for doing the right thing. I stand with him.”
But Obama’s immigration plans lately have received stiff resistance from McCain, who opposes new demands laid down by labor unions.
The AFL-CIO joined the immigration coalition for the first time this year, on the condition that a proposed temporary guest worker program for future immigrant workers would not be part of the bill. Instead, the labor unions have proposed the creation of a federal commission that would adjust the number of worker visas each year based on economic conditions.
McCain told reporters after attending Thursday’s meeting that he could not support a proposal that doesn’t include a legal temporary worker program.
“I would expect the President of the United States to put his influence on the unions in order to change their position, then I think we can proceed with negotiations,” McCain said. “Without a commitment…there is no such thing as comprehensive immigration reform.”
Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., a strong advocate of the comprehensive bill, said he was disappointed that Obama didn’t respond to the concerns about the temporary worker program during the meeting.
But Cecilia Munoz, the White House Intergovernmental Affairs director, said Obama intentionally “did not get into the policy weeds,” during the meeting.
“The goal of this is to have Janet Napolitano work with a bipartisan group to design a policy and strategy,” Munoz said.
While some Democrats have openly argued with the White House’s contention that there are not enough votes in Congress right now to pass a bill, Republicans in the meeting sided with the White House, saying they were skeptical that a bill could win passage.
“I think the votes in the Senate a little dicey at the moment. I don’t think it can pass today,” Martinez said, because of the disagreement over temporary workers. McCain also said the bill could not pass the Senate because the American public is not yet certain that the borders are secure.
But Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said a solution must be found because of the nation’s changing demographics. “We’ve got one more chance to do this,” Graham said. “If we fail this time, no politician is going to take this up for a generation, and that would be a shame for this country.”
POLITICO contributor Gebe Martinez assisted in this report.
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