Obama presses 11 Republican senators to revive support for immigration reform

By Michael W. Savage
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 2, 2010; A02

President Obama piled new pressure on Republicans on Thursday to support moves to fix an immigration system he said has become "broken and dangerous," but key GOP senators showed little sign of being ready to cooperate.

In his first presidential speech dedicated to the divisive issue, Obama made the case for comprehensive immigration reform that would see undocumented migrants given a pathway to citizenship and further measures put in place to secure the southwestern border.

But he also turned a spotlight on 11 Republican senators who had backed reform attempts in 2006, arguing that progress is being "held hostage" by "political posturing, special-interest wrangling and . . . the pervasive sentiment in Washington that tackling such a thorny and emotional issue is inherently bad politics."

"I'm ready to move, the majority of Democrats are ready to move, and I believe the majority of Americans are ready to move," Obama said in the half-hour speech at American University. "But the fact is that without bipartisan support, as we had just a few years ago, we cannot solve this problem."

Some of the 11 senators whose support is critical to his plans signaled Thursday that they are not ready to back reform this time around. They also denied that they had changed their positions for political reasons.

Laena Fallon, a spokeswoman for Sen. Judd Gregg (N.H.), said the senator is interested in fixing the immigration system. But she added that he had made it clear he "does not support any initiative promoting comprehensive reform until the president and this administration get serious about controlling our borders."

Andy Fisher, a spokesman for Sen. Richard G. Lugar (Ind.), said the senator thinks it is simply the wrong moment for reform. "There really is not the political landscape to proceed with it at this time," he said.

Other minor legislation, designed to legalize those who came to the United States as children and then enrolled in U.S. colleges, "could potentially be doable this year," the spokesman said.

Sen. Robert F. Bennett (Utah) also said further border enforcement had to come first. "The president needs to work with Congress on a step-by-step approach, focusing first on securing our borders and then establishing a temporary worker program," he said.

Other Republicans sympathetic to the cause now have other priorities. Sen. John McCain, a past supporter, faces a tough battle in his Arizona primary. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), who had been working with Democrats on a draft reform bill earlier in the year, has now said that Congress should prioritize other issues such as Wall Street reform.

The president did not outline any details for reform or set a timetable for a reform bill, to the disappointment of those pushing him to fulfill his election pledge to take up the issue early in his first term.

Obama said that "years of patchwork fixes" had led to an immigration system that was creaking, adding that Arizona's new law clamping down on illegal immigration stemmed from the impasse in Congress. But he criticized the law, which gives officers more power to check the status of those suspected of entering the country illegally, as "ill-conceived."

A slim majority of Americans support the Arizona law, according to a Washington Post-ABC poll, but a similar number also still back a program giving those here illegally the right to earn legal documentation.

"The process of who is and who isn't allowed to enter this country and on what terms has always been contentious, and that remains true," Obama told an audience of 250, including lawmakers and reform advocates.

Although Obama said amnesty would be "unwise and unfair," he also said apprehending all undocumented migrants would be impossible in practice. He argued that the border is more secure than at any time in the past 20 years and that reform is needed in other areas now.

"We can create a pathway for legal status that is fair, reflective of our values, and works," he said. "The question now is whether we will have the courage and political will."

Few in Congress see any chance of a bill making headway in an election year. A White House operation has been underway over the past few months to put the ball firmly in the Republicans' court. In April, Obama called sympathetic Republican senators to see whether a deal could be reached. He also spoke at their caucus lunch recently in a bid to round up support.

Obama has also attempted to show a renewed zeal for reform. He met with advocates Monday to talk about his commitment to the issue. In an hour-long meeting Tuesday, the president and a group of Hispanic members of Congress discussed how to proceed.

Hispanics could play an important part in the Democrats' fortunes in the midterm elections. Two-thirds of Hispanic voters backed Obama in 2008.

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