Obama agrees with Napolitano: We can't make legalization contingent upon border security

The newsiest bit from yesterday’s interview with Telemundo. Rubio’s said since the beginning that the path to citizenship (which is different from initial probationary legal status) can’t happen until the border’s been tightened, so if O insists upon this then Rubio’s destined to walk away.

But would Obama insist upon it, to the point of veto? I’m skeptical.

While he expressed optimism that a final bill will contain a path to citizenship for those currently in the country illegally, Obama would not offer specifics on how long the process of obtaining citizenship should take.

And he declined to outline how the security of the nation’s border should be assessed, saying only that there should be no border security “trigger” that must be met before undocumented persons are eligible to begin the process of seeking legal status.

“We don’t want to make this earned pathway to citizenship a situation in which it’s put off further and further into the future,” he said. “There needs to be a certain path for how people can get legal in this country, even as we also work on these strong border security issues.”

He said something similar, and similarly ambiguous, in his big immigration speech at the end of January. (“But for comprehensive immigration reform to work, it must be clear from the outset that there is a pathway to citizenship.”) But if he’s trying to drive a hard bargain here, why would he refuse to specify in the Telemundo interview how long the path to citizenship should take? Why not say “six years” or something ridiculous like that? My theory all along on O’s immigration maneuvering has been that he’s trying to create political cover for the GOP by issuing demands that he knows won’t be met so that Republicans can then claim “victory” over Obama later as a way to sell the bill to grassroots conservatives. Dan Pfeiffer, one of O’s top advisors, freely admitted last month that he’s happy to “serve as a punching bag every once in a while” so long as Rubio and the rest of the Gang of Eight are making progress. Unless and until he says plainly that he’ll veto a bill if it insists on a border-security “trigger” I’m treating this as kabuki, a proposal manufactured for the purpose of conceding it later in exchange for the GOP conceding on early probationary legal status for illegals, which is what Democrats really crave. Just to add to the kabuki vibe, remember that neither side within the Gang of Eight has been bickering publicly lately about the “trigger.” The bickering has to do almost exclusively with guest workers. Presumably they’ve already reached a deal on this issue, and since Rubio’s still part of the group, I assume it broke his way. And O knows it.

Another thing. If, as many righties (including Ted Cruz) believe, Obama’s intent on sabotaging the Gang of Eight, how to explain this from his interview with Univision?

“I’m actually optimistic that when they get back they will introduce a bill,” Obama said during an interview with Univision. “My sense is that they have come close and my expectation is that we’ll actually see a bill on the floor of the Senate next month.”

The president has repeatedly said that he would propose his own immigration bill should negotiations in Congress grind to a halt. But Obama refused to say that he would take such action even if the lawmakers fail to introduce a bill in April.

Why would he do that? This is his big chance to disrupt negotiations by putting external pressure on the Gang to come up with something before he bigfoots the whole process. Issue an ultimatum: “If there’s no bill by Date X then I’m taking over.” Republicans would instantly walk away, and then he could go about merrily demagoging them for the next 18 months. The fact that he’s not doing that suggests that he wants the bill to pass and is willing to keep a low profile to do it. Which is no small concession from this guy.

But let me play devil’s advocate. What if the White House wants a bill to pass but doesn’t want Rubio to be part of it? Is there a way for them to drive him away by digging in against the border security “trigger” while still gaining a majority in the Senate and House for final passage? That is to say, can they find five to 10 Republicans in the Senate and 30-40 in the House (plus Boehner, of course) who are so eager to build goodwill with Latinos that they’d rubber-stamp a bill that didn’t make border improvements a prerequisite for citizenship for illegals? I’m skeptical, but I also don’t underestimate the GOP’s panic about demographics. There are surely lots of Democrats in the leadership who are eager to see an “earned amnesty” enacted but are also very leery of seeing Rubio’s name attached to it, just in case he turns out to be more effective in attracting Latino voters in 2016 than most people expect. If they can force him out of this process so that he can’t claim credit for it later while still getting something passed, that’s optimal for them. But if that’s the plan, and even assuming that there really are 30-40 squishy GOP votes in the House, how would Boehner’s speakership survive if he violated the Hastert Rule to pass amnesty? He has no choice but to do this with a majority of House Republicans, I think, and it’s very hard to see how they’d rubber-stamp an even weaker bill than the Gang of Eight’s — without the political cover provided by Marco Rubio’s endorsement, no less — knowing that it would likely mean primary challenges for many of them next year. If Obama really does want to get this done, I think he and the Dems will have to live with Rubio’s demands.

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