DENVER -- The broad principles of immigration reform outlined by President Barack Obama in Las Vegas on Tuesday sound awfully similar to those put forth by a bipartisan group of eight senators in Washington on Monday.
"What people here are saying is they have not been this optimistic for 20 years that we're finally going to be able to pass bipartisan immigration reform in the Senate," said Sen. Michael Bennet, one of those eight senators who drew up the compromise, in an interview with FOX31 Denver on Tuesday.
But there are differences in the two plans that offer lawmakers on both sides of this fractious issue opportunities to cover their political tails -- and also the potential to again derail this latest push by Congress to finally address immigration reform in a lasting way.
Most notably, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a 2016 presidential hopeful and Tea Party favorite who is taking a major risk by supporting a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants that many within the GOP base consider to be "amnesty", is already threatening to withdraw his support for legislation if it includes some of the proposals Obama is pushing for.
In his own plan, Obama wouldn’t make citizenship for undocumented immigrants contingent upon a declaration that U.S.-Mexico border has been secured, which is a centerpiece of the Senate compromise that Rubio supports.
"That agreement was important in getting all of us out of our comfort zones a little bit," Bennet told FOX31. "It's legitimate to expect that those issues are dealt with before citizenship is granted."
Obama made a point of emphasizing this difference in his own remarks on Tuesday.
"It must be clear from the outset that there is a pathway to citizenship," Obama said.
But to accomplish this huge legislative priority early in his second term, Obama may have to let the Senate take the lead with its own plan, which he seems willing to do.
"It’s important for us to recognize that the foundation for bipartisan action is already in place," Obama said. "If Congress is unable to act in a timely fashion, I will send up a bill based on my proposal and insist that they vote on it right away."
One thing working in favor of a compromise: both Democrats and Republicans are motivated to address this issue, given the increasing importance of the Latino vote.
Congressman Mike Coffman, R-Aurora, who is suddenly the top target of every office-seeking Democrat in a revamped, increasingly Hispanic district, issued a supportive statement in response to the president's plan.
"I am pleased that the President‘s immigration proposal included a plan aimed at expanding the eligibility for military service to the young men and women who were brought here as children through no fault of their own," said Coffman, who introduced his own legislation Tuesday that would broaden opportunities for undocumented residents to enlist in America's military.
"Regardless of the final outcome of the larger comprehensive package being discussed by the Senate, I strongly believe this piece of the plan must be adopted. This is a critical issue, not only because it gives these young people an opportunity to earn citizenship through service to our nation, but it will also broaden the pool of eligible recruits for our military."
Coffman, like Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Yuma, did on Monday, also applauded the Senate's "Gang of Eight" for putting forth its own plan, but said there are too few details so far for him do say whether or not he supports it.
Here are three other key differences between the Senate plan and Obama's plan:
- No guest worker program: The Senate proposal calls for a "humane and effective system" for "immigrant workers to enter the country and find employment without seeking the aid of human traffickers or drug cartels" and would set up a process for American companies to hire low-skilled labor under certain circumstances — a concept that’s divided labor and business. The White House fact sheet provided to reporters does not address this issue.
- Families headed by same-sex couples are treated as other families: The White House's proposal "treats same-sex families as families by giving U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents the ability to seek a visa on the basis of a permanent relationship with a same-sex partner." Republicans who helped draw up the Senate agreement have scoffed at this proposal.
- Expedited citizenship process for DREAMers, agricultural workers?: The Senate proposal exempted not just "DREAM Act" undocumented immigrants, who were brought here as children and are poised to go to college or join the military, but agricultural workers "because of the role they play in ensuring that Americans have safe and secure agricultural products to sell and consume." The White House plan only expedites "earned citizenship" for DREAM Act-eligible undocumented immigrants.
- Obamacare: The bipartisan Senate framework allows undocumented immigrants to earn a probationary legal status, but not public benefits through the Affordable Care Act's insurance exchanges or its Medicaid expansion. Rubio, trying to sell the plan on the Rush Limbaugh Show Tuesday, said that he wouldn't support a plan that allows the 11 million undocumented people to access health benefits under Obamacare.