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While Democrats Press on Immigration as Obama Courts Businesses, the House Secretly Crafts Its Own Immigration Plan

Pressing to move quickly to rewrite the nation’s immigration laws, Democratic leaders began setting a strategy to advance legislation as the White House worked to rally business support.

Returning to a tactic used in last year’s fiscal fight, administration officials held a conference call with executives of some of the nation’s largest companies to lay out President Barack Obama’s proposals and to enlist corporate backing.

At the Capitol, Senate Democratic leaders expressed confidence that Congress would pass immigration legislation now that a bipartisan group of House lawmakers plans to introduce a proposal as early as this month.

Despite the growing Latino population in the country — most of whom are voting Democrat — most Republican members of Congress don’t have large Latino constituencies.

“I don’t think the national party argument for the bill works in the House,” said a Democratic congressional aide. “If a Republican member doesn’t have a significant number of immigrants in their district, why do they care about the party’s presidential candidate in four years?”
Of course, many Republicans argue that they need to care for the larger good of the party. Mitt Romney was beaten by 50 percentage points among Hispanics in the presidential race, and now, reliably red border states like Texas and Arizona with growing Hispanic populations might eventually turn blue as a result of demographic shifts.

The eight-person immigration House team — which includes four Republicans and four Democrats — had hoped to put forth a statement of principles as early as Friday, but sources say that is unlikely. Now, they are hoping to announce something closer to Feb. 12, the day of the State of the Union.

According to sources, the House working group includes Democrats Zoe Lofgren and Xavier Becerra of California, Luis Gutierrez of Illinois and John Yarmuth of Kentucky. Negotiating for the Republicans are Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida, Sam Johnson and John Carter of Texas and Raul Labrador of Idaho.

Wisconsin Republican Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, who in 2005 sponsored a tough House bill to deter illegal immigrants from entering the U.S., said in a statement Monday: “Extending amnesty to those who came here illegally or overstayed their visas is dangerous waters. We are a nation of laws, and I will evaluate any proposal through that matrix.”
But several sources familiar with the work of the House group said that it has come to a general consensus on a number of issues despite coming from different ideological places.

The biggest sticking point is most likely their differing views on offering illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship.

In an interview with POLITICO on Monday, Labrador said he supports the principles that the Senate laid out but insisted that “creating a new pathway” to citizenship for undocumented workers “is not a good idea.” It would encourage more illegal immigration, he said.

Asked if he is flexible, Labrador said: “The question that is more appropriate is how flexible are they? We’ve gone a bit to their side. If they’re unwilling to be flexible on that issue, [then] they want political victory not policy victory.”
On the same note, Johnson articulated a fairly tough stance on illegal immigrants on his website: “If you are here legally, you ought to be rewarded. If you are here illegally, you ought to be deported.” “I am strongly opposed to both illegal immigration and a repeat of the 1986 amnesty.”
Still, sources say that the group is closer to agreement than the rhetoric suggests.

Meanwhile, At the Capitol, Senate Democratic leaders expressed confidence that Congress would pass immigration legislation now that a bipartisan group of House lawmakers plans to introduce a proposal as early as this month.

“We believe that they’re moving along on a set of principles that will be fairly similar to ours, not completely the same,” Senator Charles Schumer of New York, the chamber’s third-ranking Democrat and a leader of the immigration-rewrite effort, told reporters yesterday.

Meanwhile, Obama said this week that he wants to see the legislation passed by mid-year. That sets an ambitious schedule for Congress on an issue that has drawn bipartisan support in the past, only to be blocked by opposition to giving some of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. a chance at citizenship. Proponents of changing immigration laws are counting on a political shift driven by a demonstration of Hispanic voting power in the November election.

Obama’s senior advisers outlined their plans in a Jan. 29 conference call with “over a dozen” business executives, including Joe Echevarria, chief executive officer of Deloitte LLP; Dan Akerson, chief executive officer of General Motors Co. (GM); Greg Brown, CEO of Motorola Solutions Inc. (MSI); and Steve Case, Revolution LLC CEO, White House press secretary Jay Carney said.

“The president will continue this engagement with outside groups next week,” Carney said, declining to elaborate or provide a full list of those on the call.

Representatives from Microsoft Corp. (MSFT), Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT) and the banking and financial services industry also took part in the half-hour discussion with Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett and National Economic Council Director Gene Sperling, according to a participant who requested anonymity to discuss a private conversation.

The executives were generally supportive of a single comprehensive bill, rather than addressing immigration with more focused separate measures, as some Republicans have advocated, according to the call participant.

Several executives emphasized the importance of expanding the number of visas available to highly skilled foreign workers, such as engineers, financial analysts and programmers. Jarrett and Sperling encouraged them to stress the importance of the issue to their employees, the participant said.

Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin, an Illinois Democrat and an author of a bipartisan Senate framework unveiled this week, said the business community could play “a critical role” in building support for the effort, particularly among Republicans.

“To have a Democratic president reaching out and engaging the business community really creates a bipartisan force,” he said.

Deciding what metrics should be used to determine when adequate steps have been taken to secure the border, laying out the path to citizenship and getting business groups and labor unions to endorse a plan are among the “thorny” issues that Senate negotiators need to tackle, Schumer said.

The balance between meeting business needs with the security, enforcement, and other issues in immigration is something the President and members of Congress are proactively engaging in. Through these discussions there is resonating theme that some change and reform will be passed that address these issues.