President Barack Obama exuded confidence in the prospects for passing comprehensive immigration reform as he went before the cameras Wednesday with his guest, Mexican President Felipe Calderon. But on the Hill, lawmakers in both parties pounced on the president for failing to admit the reality of the matter: There is no appetite for taking it up anytime soon, and Republicans aren't the only reason why.
Calderon, who will speak to Congress in a joint session today, attended a series of White House events Wednesday as part of a two-day visit to discuss pressing issues with Obama, including immigration reform. During a joint press appearance, Obama talked forcefully about the need to move on the issue and pointed the finger at Republicans for blocking progress.
"I have confidence that I can get the majority of Democrats, both in the House and the Senate, to support a piece of legislation" with strengthened border security, employer accountability and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, he said.
"But I don't have 60 votes in the Senate. I've got to have some support from Republicans," Obama said. "I don't expect to get every Republican vote, but I need some help in order to get it done."
It didn't take long for Senate Republicans to balk at Obama's suggestion that they are the only roadblocks.
"That's not true. That's just political spin," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, who is the only Republican Senator so far to back the idea of a comprehensive approach. The South Carolinian is also the lone GOP co-sponsor of a bipartisan outline for reform with Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), a proposal that many view as the best vehicle for moving on the issue.
Graham said that while most Senators support a border-security-only approach to reform, even Democrats will oppose a pathway to legalization for undocumented immigrants.
"Right now you could get 85 votes for border security ... [but] there's at least a dozen Democrats" who won't vote for comprehensive reform this Congress, Graham said. "The public is ahead of the Congress on this," he said, adding that it will take more education and lobbying to bring lawmakers on board.
Similarly, Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) said most Republicans prefer to deal with border security as a stand-alone issue, followed by "a series of other steps before we start dealing with the people who are already here illegally."
Alexander said he doesn't believe Democrats want to move the issue either. "If the president thinks he has the votes to pass it, he ought to ask Sen. [Harry] Reid [D-Nev.] to bring it up and start debating."
Obama's confidence in Democratic support for a comprehensive bill also didn't go over well in the House, where a senior Democratic aide said that "it tends to tick people off" when the president glosses over Democrats' differences in an effort to convey a sense of unity.
"It's a simplification to say that we're that close on something that's so divisive and that many members of the Caucus are not ready to dive into yet," the aide said. "When he says they're that unified, it upsets people. They feel like he doesn't really know what's going on."
A major obstacle to moving immigration reform in the House is the reality that many Democrats are facing tough re-election campaigns and oppose taking on an issue as politically explosive as immigration reform. Some moderates also tend to side with Republicans in opposing a pathway to legalization for undocumented immigrants already in the country.
Rep. Luis Gutierrez, who leads the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Immigration Task Force, criticized Obama for talking tough on the issue but not following through with action. The Illinois Democrat said Hispanics feel "disillusioned" by Obama's mixed signals about his willingness to push reform this year.
"In the beginning, he ignored us. Then he told us, You're next,'" Gutierrez said, referring to Obama wanting to move health care reform first. Now, Gutierrez said, advocates are stuck in a "yo-yo phase" as Obama goes back and forth in his messages.
"One week, he's calling Sen. Scott Brown" (Mass.), Gutierrez said, referring to the president calling a handful of moderate Republicans last month to discuss the issue. But Obama later told reporters that he thinks Congress has "too much to do" to take on immigration reform.
Gutierrez warned that the White House will find it "increasingly difficult not to act in 2011" since Obama initially vowed to pass reform in his first year in office and has yet to deliver.
"How does the president campaign for re-election?" he asked.
Calderon's visit also reignited debate over the stringent Arizona law that requires local law enforcement officers to question the immigration status of anyone suspected to be an illegal immigrant. The Mexican president said that while he will "continue being respectful of the internal policies of the United States," he retains his "firm rejection" of U.S. laws that treat "people that work and provide things to this nation ... as criminals."
But House Judiciary ranking member Lamar Smith (R-Texas) sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Wednesday urging her to keep Calderon from "interfering in the internal affairs of the United States."