US President Barack Obama Thursday sought to capitalize on a moment of sharp Republican unpopularity by pressing his foes in Congress to pass a stalled immigration bill this year.
Obama demanded action in the knowledge that the Republican Party is under pressure to improve its standing among Hispanic voters for whom immigration reform is a cherished political goal.
He spoke at the White House as polls show House of Representatives Republicans, who have declined to act on a Senate immigration reform bill, are paying the heaviest price for a stalemate over a just avoided debt default and a government shutdown.
“Let’s see if we can get it done this year,” Obama said in a White House speech on a plan to bring millions of illegal immigrants out of the shadows.
“Let’s not wait. It doesn’t get easier to just put it off. Let’s do it now. Let’s not delay.”
Despite Obama’s calls, most Washington experts believe there is little chance of prompt action on comprehensive immigration reform, since the proposal is viewed as tantamount to an amnesty for illegal immigrants by many conservative Republicans.
Time is fast running out to pass the bill, which would bolster Obama’s political legacy, before the return of hyper partisan campaign politics in the run-up to mid-term elections next year.
Republican Party leaders are acutely conscious though that if they don’t improve their standing among Hispanics — an increasingly influential voting demographic, they will suffer in future presidential elections — a vulnerability Obama is trying to exploit.
“They should take a closer look at the polls,” Obama said.
“The American people support this. It’s not something they reject.”
Talking repeatedly about immigration is a political winner for Obama: if the bill is passed he will get credit and a legacy achievement. If it is not, Democrats can continue to exploit Republican weakness on the issue in elections.
Republican House Speaker John Boehner has said that he will not move the Senate bill in its entirety, but is open to smaller individual reform efforts.
“The speaker agrees that America has a broken immigration system and we need reform that would boost our economy,” said Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck.
“He’s also been clear that the House will not consider any massive, Obamacare-style legislation that no one understands.
“We hope that the president will work with us — not against us — as we pursue this deliberate approach.”
Obama also indulged his own frustration at the realities of divided government in Washington, which has stalled most of his second term agenda.
“Just because something is smart and fair and good for the economy and fiscally responsible and supported by business and labor, the evangelical community and many Democrats and many Republicans, that does not mean that it will actually get done,” he said.
“This is Washington, after all. So, everything tends to be viewed through a political prism.”
The Senate bill passed in June would create a pathway to legal status and eventual citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants.
The plan, crafted and approved with Senate Republican support, would strengthen the border with Mexico and reorganize the visa system to give priority to high-demand fields, including engineers and farm workers.