The Washington Post

Obama reaches out to Republican senators on immigration overhaul

Obama spoke separately to Republican Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.), above, Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) and John McCain (Ariz.) about their efforts to negotiate a bill on immigration overhaul, White House officials said. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Facing criticism for failing to reach out to Republicans negotiating an immigration overhaul, President Obama placed phone calls Tuesday afternoon to three GOP senators involved in an eight-member bipartisan group working on the issue.

Obama spoke separately to Republican Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.), Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) and John McCain (Ariz.) about their efforts to negotiate a bill, White House officials said.

The president told the senators that he shared their commitment to an overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws and said he hopes they will be able to introduce legislation as soon as possible, the White House said.

The Senate group — four Democrats and four Republicans — unveiled a set of principles to guide reform last month and has said it hopes to translate its ideas into legislation by March.

The calls from Obama represented unusually direct outreach by a president who has rarely engaged the Republican rank-and-file in difficult legislative debates, often preferring to ratchet up public pressure instead. The strategy comes in part because many GOP lawmakers do not wish to be seen as working directly with the Democratic president.

But the White House was working Tuesday to get the immigration talks back on track after the weekend leak to USA Today of a draft bill written by Obama administration officials. Republicans quickly criticized the White House draft and sought to differentiate it from the emerging Senate blueprint.

Obama’s bill would not tie permanent residency for the nation’s 11 million illegal immigrants to new border security measures, as the senators have discussed. It also does not include the creation of a guest worker program to let businesses attract temporary immigrant labor in the future, a key priority of many Republicans.

White House aides had also tangled earlier Tuesday with staffers for Rubio — the loudest critic of the leaked White House draft — over whether the president and his staff had been engaged enough in the process.

A spokesman for Rubio said that he had appreciated receiving Obama’s call.

“The senator told the president that he feels good about the ongoing negotiations in the Senate and is hopeful the final product is something that can pass the Senate with strong bipartisan support,” Rubio spokesman Alex Conant said.

White House officials indicated that Obama told the senators that he thinks reform should include strengthening border security as well as an earned path to citizenship for immigrants now in the country illegally, a newly streamlined legal immigration system and accountability for employers.

Obama met with the group’s four Democrats at the White House last week.

White House officials said Obama did not reach the group’s fourth Republican, Sen. Jeff Flake (Ariz.), who was traveling, but would speak with him soon.

David Nakamura contributed to this report. Discuss this topic and other political issues on The Washington Post’s Politics Forums.

Rosalind Helderman is a political enterprise and investigations reporter for the Washington Post.

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