Democrats Press on Immigration as Obama Courts Businesses

Pressing to move quickly to rewrite the nation’s immigration laws, Democratic leaders began setting a strategy to advance legislation as the White House worked to rally business support.

Returning to a tactic used in last year’s fiscal fight, administration officials held a conference call with executives of some of the nation’s largest companies to lay out President Barack Obama’s proposals and to enlist corporate backing.

At the Capitol, Senate Democratic leaders expressed confidence that Congress would pass immigration legislation now that a bipartisan group of House lawmakers plans to introduce a proposal as early as this month.

“We believe that they’re moving along on a set of principles that will be fairly similar to ours, not completely the same,” Senator Charles Schumer of New York, the chamber’s third-ranking Democrat and a leader of the immigration-rewrite effort, told reporters yesterday.

Obama said this week that he wants to see the legislation passed by mid-year. That sets an ambitious schedule for Congress on an issue that has drawn bipartisan support in the past, only to be blocked by opposition to giving some of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. a chance at citizenship. Proponents of changing immigration laws are counting on a political shift driven by a demonstration of Hispanic voting power in the November election.

Lobbying Business

Obama’s senior advisers outlined their plans in a Jan. 29 conference call with “over a dozen” business executives, including Joe Echevarria, chief executive officer of Deloitte LLP; Dan Akerson, chief executive officer of General Motors Co.; Greg Brown, CEO of Motorola Solutions Inc.; and Steve Case, Revolution LLC CEO, White House press secretary Jay Carney said.

“The president will continue this engagement with outside groups next week,” Carney said, declining to elaborate or provide a full list of those on the call.

Representatives from Microsoft Corp., Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and the banking and financial services industry also took part in the half-hour discussion with Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett and National Economic Council Director Gene Sperling, according to a participant who requested anonymity to discuss a private conversation.

The executives were generally supportive of a single comprehensive bill, rather than addressing immigration with more focused separate measures, as some Republicans have advocated, according to the call participant.

Skilled Workers

Several executives emphasized the importance of expanding the number of visas available to highly skilled foreign workers, such as engineers, financial analysts and programmers. Jarrett and Sperling encouraged them to stress the importance of the issue to their employees, the participant said.

Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin, an Illinois Democrat and an author of a bipartisan Senate framework unveiled this week, said the business community could play “a critical role” in building support for the effort, particularly among Republicans.

“To have a Democratic president reaching out and engaging the business community really creates a bipartisan force,” he said.

Deciding what metrics should be used to determine when adequate steps have been taken to secure the border, laying out the path to citizenship and getting business groups and labor unions to endorse a plan are among the “thorny” issues that Senate negotiators need to tackle, Schumer said.

Guest-Worker Plan

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said this week that a stronger guest-worker program to help regulate low-skilled laborers for agriculture and other industries must be included in any bill he could support.

“We need a good guest-worker program. The one we have now is not working very well,” the Kentucky Republican said in an interview with Yahoo! News released today. “So there’s a practical reality to needing a guest-worker program, and I’m sure that will be a part of the final bill.”

Still, Schumer said he was confident that there are Republicans in the Senate who would back a broad rewrite of immigration law.

“Will the House be harder than the Senate? Probably,” he said. If a “large number” of Senate Republicans support the measure, “we think that will encourage the House not only to go forward but to pass a bill.”

House Bill

The House group working on a bill includes Republican Representatives Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida, John Carter and Sam Johnson of Texas and Raul Labrador of Idaho, along with Democrats Zoe Lofgren and Xavier Becerra of California and Luis Gutierrez of Illinois.

Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan, the former Republican vice presidential candidate, also has participated in the discussions.

“I’ve talked to leadership about this issue, and Speaker John Boehner understands that we have to fix the broken immigration system,” Diaz-Balart said in an interview. “I am pretty sure that if there was a bipartisan bill filed by some members of the House I think the leadership would probably be interested in trying to bring it to a vote.”

(Updates with McConnell comments under “Guest-Worker Plan” subhead.)
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