Carrie Budoff Brown and Anna Palmer
September 5, 2014
More top Democrats are pressuring President Barack Obama to slow down on immigration reform, further diminishing the chances that he’ll take sweeping administrative action before Election Day.
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) wants Obama to wait until after November. Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) said he has “concerns about executive action.” Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), who caucuses with Democrats, said it would be a “mistake” for the president to do anything significant.
Until now, few Democrats have been willing to break publicly with Obama over his vow to issue an executive order on immigration. Democratic incumbents in this year’s most competitive Senate races have already voiced concern, but the calls from others to hold off on acting suggests Democrats are growing even more anxious about the decision and its potential to upend the fight for control of the Senate.
White House officials have been locked in an intense debate over whether Obama should announce a program to defer deportations for millions of undocumented immigrants before Election Day. A delay would mark a major reversal from June, when the president stood in the Rose Garden and pledged to issue an order by the end of the summer, and it would infuriate the Hispanic community.
But the flagging support among senators is particularly worrisome to the White House, which will be reluctant to make such a controversial move without the strong backing of congressional Democrats.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) declined Thursday to say that Obama should act ahead of the election — a noncommittal posture that reflects the deep divisions within his caucus.
“The decision is the president’s,” Reid said in an interview at the National Clean Energy Summit in Las Vegas. “I’m confident he’s going to do something. He has to decide when he’s going to do it.”
White House officials insist the president has not yet decided what to do on immigration or when he will do it. Senior adviser Valerie Jarrett and chief domestic policy adviser Cecilia Muñoz delivered that message in a round of calls this week to immigration advocacy groups and labor leaders.
The personal attention has done little to soothe the activists, who are furious over the White House’s handling of the decision.
“Our community is done with broken promises,” said Lorella Praeli, director of advocacy and policy for United We Dream. “There are real consequences in the community.”
At a Capitol Hill meeting Wednesday, a Reid aide warned advocates to not attack the vulnerable Senate Democrats from Alaska, Louisiana, Arkansas and North Carolina who have urged the president to go slow. Efforts to publicly pressure the group would most likely backfire, the aide warned. Those Democrats won’t want to support Obama once he does issue an order, whenever it comes, and that could compel him to go with a smaller package because of the limited political support, according to sources familiar with the meeting.
Reid’s office declined to comment on the meeting.
Henry Cisneros, the secretary of Housing and Urban Development under Bill Clinton and a national Hispanic leader, said reform proponents “should be understanding” if the order were delayed.
“Obviously, it would be good if that relief came sooner than later. But we also have to understand how interlaced this is with the election,” Cisneros said in an interview at the Las Vegas energy conference. “We’ve got to be attentive to the possibility that this action of the president could bear on North Carolina, on Arkansas, and Alaska and a handful of other states. And therefore we should be understanding of the president’s logic that this is something that should wait beyond the election. And I think if that’s the course he chooses, I would express that understanding.”
Obama hinted during a news conference last week that he may not act this month. And at the White House briefing Tuesday, press secretary Josh Earnest declined to say that Obama would make a move soon.
“There is the chance that it could be before the end of the summer, there is the chance that it could be after the summer,” Earnest said.
In the absence of clear direction from the White House, nervous Democrats have begun to fill the void after weeks of silence. POLITICO sought comment in July from every Democratic senator facing reelection this fall, but only a handful took a position. In a follow-up survey this week of the full Democratic Caucus, more senators came out against the White House strategy.
“I have concerns about executive action,” said Franken, who had previously declined to comment, in a statement Thursday. “This is a job for Congress, and it’s time for the House to act.”
Nelson said, through a spokesman, that Obama should use his executive authority to make fixes to the immigration system, but after the November elections.
King urged Obama to reassess his decision to use his executive authority, saying “it would inflame the issue and I just think it would be a mistake.”
“I would oppose a unilateral action of a significant nature on immigration reform both on constitutional grounds and on policy grounds,” King said in an interview. “I hope the White House and the administration are reconsidering their statements on unilateral action.”
White House officials have privately expressed frustration with the timeline to decide by the end of summer, which was first suggested by Senate Democratic leaders back in February. As the chances for legislative action diminished, the leaders had demanded that Obama act on his own to fix the immigration system if Congress failed to pass a bill by August. After resisting the demands for months, Obama eventually agreed in June and announced the shift from a legislative strategy to an administrative one.
White House officials conducted more than 20 meetings in July and August with legal experts, immigration advocates and business leaders to gather ideas on what should be included in the order.
But throughout the process, a lack of consensus on the political ramifications persisted.
A major announcement before the election could help to turn out the progressive base, particularly in Colorado, where Democratic Sen. Mark Udall is locked in a tight race despite the state’s Democratic leanings. But it could hurt Democrats in the four most competitive Senate races. In Arkansas, Alaska, Louisiana and North Carolina, Latinos make up only a fraction of the voting population and the Democratic incumbents want the president to disappear for the next two months.
With the most endangered Senate Democrats faring better than expected, the party has grown increasingly reluctant to shake up the political environment.
At the same time, polls over the past two months have shown a sharp decline in approval for the president’s handling of immigration, dampening the desire among Democrats to put the issue front and center.
A coalition of Hispanic groups is expected to convene over the next couple of days to discuss how aggressively they would respond to a delay.
“What is so concerning is there has already been a delay to review administrative relief,” said Tom Saenz, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund.
Hispanic Federation President José Calderón predicted there would be a lot of protests if there is no action taken by the end of September.
“It’s not acceptable to us,” Calderón said. “We’re into accountability… We will hold Republicans accountable and the same thing with Democrats. Both parties are accountable to our community and what’s happening in our community.”
Seung Min Kim, Burgess Everett and Darren Goode contributed to this report.