WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's prospects for a sweeping legislative victory this year now rest almost solely on the immigration overhaul working its way through Congress. But immigration's tricky politics have created a dilemma for a president fighting for an issue he considers central to his legacy.
If Obama is too closely aligned with the legislation, it could scare away Republicans wary of appearing to hand the president a win. But if he stays on the sidelines and the overhaul runs into trouble on Capitol Hill, Obama likely will be criticized for not using his presidential powers to fight for votes, as he was following the recent failure of gun control measures he championed.
In the coming weeks the White House will test whether Obama can take on a more public role in the immigration debate after largely ceding the issue to Congress for much of the year. The president will ramp up his immigration-related travel this spring and summer, including a trip this week to Mexico and Costa Rica. The White House also is planning to use Spanish-language media to bolster public support for a comprehensive bill.
Still, Obama signaled during a White House news conference Tuesday that his primary talking point will be that he's backing a bill drafted by the Senate's so-called Gang of Eight, a group of four Democrats and four Republicans.
"I've been impressed by the work that was done by the Gang of Eight," Obama said. "The bill that they produced is not the bill that I would have written — there are elements of it that I would change — but I do think that it meets the basic criteria that I laid out from the start."
Immigration reform gained little traction in Congress during Obama's first term, in part because of opposition from GOP lawmakers. But the November election changed the political calculus for some Republicans, who watched Hispanic voters overwhelmingly side with Obama and Democrats as they increased their share of the national electorate.
At the request of the Gang of Eight, Obama kept a low-profile as the Senate working group set about the delicate task of crafting a draft bill earlier this year. The potential damage caused by White House involvement was underscored when a copy of Obama's own draft bill was leaked in February, raising suspicions among Republicans about his motivations and threatening to upend the effort.
But now that the Gang of Eight bill is public and is winning some Republican support, White House advisers say there's less risk in Obama taking on a larger public role in the debate too.
The focus on immigration in the capital comes as rallies are expected in dozens of cities around the country Wednesday in what has become an annual cry for easing the nation's immigration laws.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a favorite of conservatives and potential GOP presidential candidate in 2016, is one if the bill's architects, as is Arizona's Republican Sen. John McCain. And even in the Republican-led House, where an immigration overhaul faces a steeper challenger, the Gang of Eight measure has won praise from House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
The bill would strengthen border security, allow tens of thousands of new high- and low-skilled workers into the country, require all employers to check their workers' legal status and provide an eventual path to citizenship for some 11 million immigrants now here illegally.
The measure is similar to the immigration principles Obama outlined in January during a visit to Las Vegas, his only immigration-focused trip of the year, though there are key differences. For example, the Senate bill makes the pathway to citizenship contingent on securing the border, which Obama opposes, and does not recognize gay couples, which Obama supports.
Many immigration advocates say they support Obama getting more involved in the debate as the draft bill weaves its way through the Senate Judiciary Committee, and likely to the Senate floor.
"He needs to be an advocate and push for the bill in the Senate to make sure this gets done," Eliseo Medina of the Service Employees International Union said of the president. "We need continued sustained pressure from all facets."
McCain also welcomed the prospect of a more proactive Obama, saying the president is committed to being heavily engaged. But the Arizona Republican, who has spoken with Obama about the immigration negotiations several times in recent weeks, added that the president "doesn't want to harm the passage of the bill either. And I believe him."
But some Republicans remain suspicious of the president's efforts and say he's trying to sink the bill in order to use the legislative failure for political gain.
"I think the president wants to campaign on immigration reform in 2014 and 2016," Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said in an interview with CBS News. "I think the reason the White House is insisting on a path to citizenship for those who are here illegally is because the White House knows that insisting on that is very likely to scuttle the bill."
Obama advisers insist he would rather be able to claim victory on the immigration overhaul that has eluded him than use a failure as leverage in the midterm elections — a proposition that has no guarantee of working in his favor.
Associated Press writer Jim Kuhnhenn contributed to this report.
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