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Immigration debate: high-stakes political poker

Immigration debate: high-stakes political poker
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Monday, February 18, 2013 - 6:33pm

Whether a political ploy or bona fide proposal, a leaked version of President Barack Obama's draft immigration plan raised Republican hackles while bringing some additional focus to the debate.

The draft plan reported over the weekend by USA Today and confirmed to CNN by an administration official included a possible path to coveted permanent residency in eight years for most of the nation's estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants.

It also called for steps to strengthen border security and the E-Verify system to check the immigration status of workers.

GOP critics pounced, with some objecting to any form of what they label "amnesty" for those in the country illegally. Others accused Obama and the White House of dirty tricks by going public with their draft as a bipartisan group of senators works on a possible agreement.

Conservative Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama complained on Monday that both the Obama draft and the talks involving the Senate's so-called Gang of Eight seek to "confer legal status and work authorization on Day One in exchange for promises of future enforcement on which this administration will never deliver."

"Perhaps this leak, and what it reveals, may mark the beginning of the collapse of this new scheme to force through a fatally flawed plan," Sessions said in a statement.

Others accused Obama of deliberately floating an unacceptable plan so that Republicans would reject it, bringing the party further disfavor from Hispanic Americans, the nation's fastest-growing demographic.

"Does the president want a result, or does he want another cudgel to beat up Republicans so that he can get political advantage in the next election," veteran GOP Sen. John McCain of Arizona said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press."

To former Rep. Connie Mack, a Florida Republican, "a little bit of this is show from everyone, including the president's side."

Regardless of how it happened, the leak of Obama's plan "plays into the fears" of Republicans that the president prefers keeping the issue alive for political advantage, Mack told CNN on Monday.

His wife -- former Republican Rep. Connie Bono Mack of California -- agreed that the leak added to what he called an already deep trust deficit in Washington.

"The American people would be astonished if they knew how little trust existed between the two parties when we have to work together like this," Bono Mack said on CNN.

She acknowledged tossing the president's plan into the debate was "a good way to move a bill."

"You know, come out farther to the left, make the room on the right," Bono Mack said. "But in this case, start with that trust."

Administration officials insisted Obama wanted Congress to work out an agreement that can win support from both parties.

"We will be prepared with our own plans if these ongoing talks between Republicans and Democrats up on Capitol Hill break down," Obama's new chief of staff, Denis McDonough, said Sunday on CBS's "Face the Nation." "There's no evidence that they have broken down yet. We are continuing to support that."

He added that he hoped the two sides "don't get involved in some kind of typical Washington back-and-forth sideshow here and rather just ... roll up their sleeves and get to work on writing a comprehensive immigration bill.

Along with the Senate talks on possible legislation, House members from both parties also are involved in their own discussions.

The draft plan reported by USA Today calls for the eight-year path to permanent residency for undocumented immigrants, who would face a criminal background check and have to pay back taxes, learn English and get a new "lawful prospective immigrant" visa.

On the day after last week's State of the Union address, in which Obama called for comprehensive immigration reform, he met with the four Democratic senators involved in the Gang of Eight talks to reiterate what he considers to be the main principles for a final agreement.

According to the White House, those principles include "continuing to strengthen border security, creating an earned path to citizenship, holding employers accountable and streamlining legal immigration."

Republicans stung by the overwhelming support for Obama from Latino voters that helped the president win re-election in November are divided over how to proceed on immigration.

Conservatives generally oppose any breaks for those who came to America illegally although some, like Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, contend the party must adopt a modern approach to an issue with such strong economic and social impacts.

Rubio, who gave the GOP response to Obama's State of the Union address, displayed the party's conflicted posture on the issue that night. He didn't mention his past support of a route to legal status for undocumented immigrants now in the United States, but advocated a non-specific "responsible, permanent solution to the problem."

First, he said, "we must follow through on the broken promises of the past to secure our borders and enforce our laws."

When news of the leaked Obama proposal emerged, Rubio immediately criticized it as "disappointing to those of us working on a serious solution."

On the Democratic side, some of the distrust noted by Bono Mack is evident. Remembering similar bipartisan talks on major issues, such as the Gang of Six that spent months working on a health care overhaul in 2009 without every reaching an agreement, they want to make sure Congress gets legislation to consider.

"I know that Senator Rubio was upset with this leak," Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York told CNN on Sunday. "I am not upset. We've talked to Senator Rubio and he is fully on board with our process. And I am very hopeful that in March we will have a bipartisan bill."

Schumer said the mechanics of politics was obvious: "If a Democrat, the president or anyone else puts out what they want on their own, it's going to be different than what you have a bipartisan agreement, but the only way we're going to get something done is with a bipartisan agreement."
 

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