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Carl Leubsdorf: Can immigration bill clear political hurdles?

  • Dallas Morning News
  • Published Friday, Jan. 31, 2014, at 12 a.m.

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On the morning of President Obama’s State of the Union speech, the lead story of the New York Times laid out the details – and the politics – of the immigration plan House Republican leaders unveiled at this week’s party conference.

In the end, that meeting may prove more consequential than anything the president said during Tuesday night’s 65-minute speech or that Republicans added in response.

Obama presented Congress and millions of viewers with a politically appealing mix of modestly repackaged proposals and pleas for action on tax reforms Republicans want and unemployment benefits and the minimum wage increase Democrats favor. The official GOP response by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., was long on criticism and short on specifics.

Neither advanced the immigration debate.

“It is time to heed the call of business leaders, labor leaders, faith leaders and law enforcement – and fix our broken immigration system,” Obama said, citing massive economic benefits some economists say would follow.

He avoided specifics, notably the GOP-opposed provision in the Senate bill providing a path for illegal immigrants to citizenship, thus leaving open the prospect of a subsequent compromise if the House passes some form of its plan. But differences remain obvious.

McMorris Rodgers, echoing four House Judiciary Committee-approved bills, called for “a step-by-step solution to immigration reform by first securing our borders and making sure America will always attract the best, brightest and hardest working from around the world.”

In the GOP’s Spanish language response, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., called similarly for fixing “our broken immigration system with a permanent solution.”

Their language reflected the stance of House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and other House GOP leaders. But the party’s substantial tea party faction opposes action now, as do important outside conservative voices, like the magazines National Review and Weekly Standard.

The tea party opposition was reflected in the decisions by its designated spokesman, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., to avoid the subject in listing proposals for action.

The Judiciary Committee measures would give states more power to create and enforce immigration law, expand use of electronic databases to screen job applicants, create a new temporary agricultural guest worker program and expand the number of green cards for temporary high-skilled workers and immigrant entrepreneurs.

Though far more limited than the Obama-backed, Senate-passed bill, that could lead to a negotiable version of the legislation Obama made a major second-term goal and Republicans need to improve their standing with Hispanics.

Still, a GOP decision to proceed with legislation won’t necessarily mean it will pass, given conservative concentration on strengthening enforcement of current laws and expanding a guest worker program.

Republican leaders favor a path to legal status, rather than citizenship, for the 11 million adult illegal aliens in this country. That’s a nonstarter for reform advocates, who back the Senate bill’s path to citizenship, though only after a lengthy process.

In the end, any resolution may depend on how badly each party wants a bill, which side is willing to compromise, and by how much. Senate Democrats are insisting so far on their bill’s path to citizenship, while House Republicans flatly oppose it.

But Obama may be open to compromise, given the likelihood he won’t have much else to show legislatively for 2014.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is a former Washington bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News.

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