POLITICS: PennAve

Obama's piecemeal shift not moving the ball on immigration

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Politics,White House,Brian Hughes,Immigration,Barack Obama,President,House of Representatives,John Boehner,PennAve,House Republicans

President Obama raised eyebrows this week by giving his most extensive endorsement of a piecemeal approach to passing immigration reform on Capitol Hill.

But the tactical shift from the White House made little headway on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, where Republicans say immigration legislation isn’t getting fast-tracked anytime soon.

“Not going to happen in the short-term regardless of what Obama says,” a senior GOP House aide for a Republican open to immigration reform legislation told the Washington Examiner.

“Quite frankly, before the midterms might be overly optimistic at this point,” the aide added.

That sentiment reflects the fractured nature of the Republican Party as the White House continues to sound the drumbeat for comprehensive immigration reform.

The GOP wants to enhance its standing with Latino voters, who gave Republicans an emphatic rebuke in the 2012 elections. Aside from concerns over a pathway to citizenship for the approximately 11 million people living in the U.S. illegally and demands for tougher border security, Republicans are in no rush to take up immigration, with their laser-sharp focus trained on the botched Obamacare rollout.

“There’s no point in stepping on a winning message,” explained a senior House GOP leadership aide.

Yet, Obama, at least tactically, seemed to lessen the massive gap with Republicans on the hot-button issue.

“If they want to chop that thing up into five pieces, as long as all five pieces get done, I don’t care what it looks like as long as it’s actually delivering on those core values that we talk about,” Obama said during a Wall Street Journal forum Tuesday.

Since the Senate passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill in June, Obama has urged the lower chamber to take up the issue.

House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., has also said he will only address immigration reform with piecemeal bills.

Obama has frequently compared the piecemeal approach to a child eating dessert first and leaving the less-appetizing vegetables for another day.

The fear among Democrats is that the House would pass border security measures and other provisions popular with Republicans, while ignoring a pathway to citizenship for those in the U.S. illegally — often dismissed by critics as a form of amnesty.

“The president’s principles have not changed,” a senior administration official told the Examiner, looking to alleviate such concerns. “We can’t have a situation where millions of people are still living in the shadows. That is non-negotiable.”

Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, a former Judiciary Committee chairman and a strong proponent of strengthening border enforcement before other changes to immigration law, said he was encouraged by Obama's recognition that a large, comprehensive bill would never pass the GOP-controlled House.

“To me it was just a recognition of reality – that if legislation goes forward it will be one step at a time, one bill at a time,” he told the Washington Examiner. “It was nice to see him break ranks with some of the Democrats who are still insisting on comprehensive or nothing. They've been saying that for six years and have got nothing so if we're going to have immigration reform it is going to be by a step by step approach.”

But Smith said the president's insistence that House Republicans pass all the component parts of his reform bill, including providing a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants already in the country, isn't realistic or helpful.

“As much as the president would like to dictate to Republicans it's probably not going to work,” he said. “In addition to that, it's not helpful to the democratic process, it's not helpful in trying to promote immigration legislation to have the president continue to stake out absolute positions and threaten Republicans.”

Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has said the House would not take the Senate-passed immigration bill to conference, effectively ensuring the legislation remains on the back burner in 2013.

Although more receptive to a piecemeal approach, the White House is jumping on Boehner’s rhetoric to frame Republicans as a band of obstructionists with little interest in governing.

“Multiple reports confirm that there are enough votes in the House to get it done,” White House deputy senior adviser David Simas said. “And still: no vote.”

The White House is grouping the stalled immigration package with Obama’s blocked nominations for the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals and Federal Housing Finance Agency as indicative of a do-nothing attitude among House Republicans.

Immigration reform advocates, leading a nationwide fast to put pressure on House Republicans, delivered a similar message to Boehner’s doorstep.

"While we understand and appreciate your wish to work part-time for the rest of the year while receiving the benefits of full-time employment, immigrants and working people don't have that luxury," the group of advocates, refraining from eating, said in a letter to the speaker.

But conservatives counter that if the Obamacare mess has proven anything, it’s that Congress shouldn’t pass a sweeping piece of legislation without fully understanding the consequences of such actions.

“House members need to be on alert,” Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., warned. “It's not step-by-step if the individual bills are combined into a comprehensive proposal in a back-room negotiation and delivered to the president's desk.”

This story was published at 5:47 p.m. and has been updated.

White House correspondent Susan Crabtree contributed to this report.

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