Where Does Overhauling Immigration Stand?

Bipartisan groups of lawmakers are working together on overhauling immigration. On Tuesday, President Obama spoke with several of the senators involved. But there's been some controversy over a draft White House proposal on immigration that was made public.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Bipartisan groups and lawmakers are working together on another issue: Immigration. Yesterday, the president spoke with several senators involved in negotiations on that issue. But, at the same time, some senators criticized the White House for drafting its own plan for changing immigration laws.

We're going to talk through this subject with NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. She's on the line.

Mara, good morning.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So is this becoming a partisan issue once again?

LIASSON: Well, I think immigration reform, which was supposed to be one of those rare issues that did have some bipartisan momentum behind it, still does. But you can see how difficult and sensitive this issue is. Yesterday the president, for the first time, had direct talks with three of the four Republican senators in that bipartisan gang of eight in the Senate that's working on immigration reform. He wanted to get the talks back on track.

He managed to talk to Senators Graham, McCain and Rubio. Senator Flake was traveling so he didn't reach him. And this follows some pretty harsh reactions from Republicans to a draft White House proposal that USA Today obtained over the weekend. This wasn't an actual leak. I think it was a true scoop, and this was the proposal that the White House has been working on for some time, that they've always said that they would be ready to introduce if the bipartisan effort fails.

INSKEEP: Okay. So Republicans didn't seem to like this draft proposal. What was different in the White House's plan from what Republican and Democratic senators had been discussing?

LIASSON: Well, there was a couple things that were different. It's not contingent on border security, which is one of the key planks in the bipartisan Senate plan.

INSKEEP: Oh, saying that you can't do a path for citizenship (unintelligible).

LIASSON: Until you certify the border is secure.

INSKEEP: Right, right, right.

LIASSON: There's no guesswork or program. The length of time that it would take to become - for illegal immigrants to become citizens is eight years, longer than some pro-immigration groups may want, shorter than Republicans want. But those are the flash points in the immigration reform debate. They all need to be worked out and there's nothing that the White House has suggested is non-negotiable in this draft.

INSKEEP: Okay. So there's a lot of details here. The details can affect millions of lives. Let's remember that we're talking about an estimated 11 million people who are believed to be in the United States illegally, without documentation. The question is how, if at all, to legalize their status. You think, Mara, that the White House did not intend to slip out this draft into public debate, but there it is. So does that help or hurt the process?

LIASSON: Well, that's a good question. To hear some Republicans explain it, anything with the president's name on it hurts, but that doesn't really make sense because I don't think Republicans are going to vote for or against immigration reform based on whether the president supports it. This is an issue that has momentum because it's in the political interests of both sides to support it.

And then there's the notion that some Republicans believe that the president wants and issue not a bill. But I don't see any evidence for that. He has tread very carefully on this issue. He hasn't demonized Republicans on immigration reform as he has been more than willing to do on other issues like sequestration, as we just heard in Scott's piece. I think the president does want to sign a bill, but he also has to prove to his own base that he is willing to move forward with his own plan if Congress is unable to come up with a bipartisan immigration reform proposal.

He hasn't put a hard and fast deadline on it, but he has mentioned March as a time when he expects something to happen in the Senate.

INSKEEP: OK. So if he has to prove that to his own base, his fellow Democrats, does the release of this White House plan actually help things a little bit then?

LIASSON: Well, it could help push things forward in a perverse way, because it provides some cover for Republicans, particularly Marco Rubio, who's been a leader on this issue. He was very critical of the White House draft. He said it would be dead on arrival if they sent that up in legislative form to the Hill. It allows him to position himself in maybe a more politically comfortable position, opposing the president's plan and saying he supports this bipartisan congressional package instead of the, you know, far left White House proposal on immigration reform.

So you could make the argument that this actually could help the process.

INSKEEP: You can vote for a bill that the president will sign, but still say you're against Obama.

LIASSON: Yes.

INSKEEP: Okay. Mara, thanks very much, as always.

LIASSON: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

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