Seeking to boost the bipartisan momentum in Congress for tackling immigration reform, President Obama said Tuesday that he now sees "a genuine desire to get this done soon" — but warned that the debate will get more heated in the weeks ahead.
Mr. Obama traveled to Las Vegas to deliver a major speech on immigration just a day after a bipartisan group of eight senators announced a framework for a bill calling for most illegal immigrants to obtain legal status "on Day One," with green cards and a full path to citizenship to follow once more action has been taken to secure the border.
"The good news is that — for the first time in many years — Republicans and Democrats seem ready to tackle this problem together," Mr. Obama said, blessing the broad outlines of the senators' deal and saying the borders are secure enough to begin granting illegal immigrants citizenship.
But the latest numbers suggest that illegal crossings from the Mexican border once again may be on the rise after falling for six years. The U.S. Border Patrol made 356,873 arrests on the border in fiscal year 2012, up 9 percent from 2011.
The Border Patrol figures that apprehensions are a good proxy for illegal crossings, so when the numbers go up, it means that the flow of illegal immigrants is rising as well.
That could complicate Mr. Obama's effort, particularly in the House, where Republicans have vowed to take a close look at the border situation.
Debate begins in earnest next week, when the House Judiciary Committee holds the first immigration hearing of the 113th Congress, followed a week later by the first Senate hearing.
Rep. Bob Goodlatte, chairman of the House panel, said lawmakers will "should cautiously study" the president's proposal.
"When we look at proposals that deal with the legal status of 11 million illegal immigrants currently living in the U.S., the American people and members of Congress have a lot of questions about how this would work, what it would cost and how it will prevent illegal immigration in the future," the Virginia Republican said.
But Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat and chairman of the Senate panel, called Mr. Obama's speech "courageous" and said he would convene his hearing the day after the president's State of the Union address.
Mr. Obama urged Congress not to let fights over details derail a bill, as has happened repeatedly.
He rejected House Republicans' idea of breaking up immigration into separate bills, saying the legislation must tackle all parts together — including a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States.
"For comprehensive immigration reform to work, it must be clear from the outset that there is a pathway to citizenship," the president said.
Ahead of his speech, Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican and one of eight senators who worked on the bipartisan Senate deal, cautioned Mr. Obama against trying to outbid them.
"Let me just say this. If this endeavor becomes a bidding war to see who can come up with the easiest, quickest and cheapest pathway to a green card possible, this thing is not going to go well, folks," Mr. Rubio said on the Senate floor. "We have now a very common-sense and reasonable set of principles, and I hope that the president will say today that he hopes that process succeeds. But if his intentions are to trigger a bidding war to see who can come up with the easiest process, this is not a good start."
Mr. Obama did not try to outbid the deal and, in fact, said the deal was "very much in line" with what he supports.
His own principles, which the White House released in a fact sheet, are more detailed than the five-page framework that the senators released Monday. The brevity of the plans underscores the many hurdles that remain as both sides try to write legislation that is likely to run hundreds of pages long.
One of those hurdles emerged Tuesday: how to handle gay couples in the immigration system.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who led Republicans in negotiations on the framework, said their plan was silent on that issue but that extending full immigration marriage benefits to same-sex couples would be "a red flag" for him.
Mr. Obama supports extending immigration benefits to same-sex couples, spokesman Jay Carney said.
"The president has long believed that Americans with same-sex partners from other countries should not be faced with the painful choice between staying with the person they love or staying in the country they love," Mr. Carney told reporters traveling on Air Force One to Las Vegas.
That drew praise from Rep. Michael M. Honda, California Democrat, who has fought for years to extend immigration benefits to gay couples.
Mr. Obama, who late last year said he would write his own immigration bill, backed off that vow Tuesday, saying he would give Congress a chance to work out a deal.
"But it's important for us to recognize that the foundation for bipartisan action is already in place. And if Congress is unable to move forward in a timely fashion, I will send up a bill based on my proposal and insist that they vote on it right away," he said.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer, the Democrat who is leading the bipartisan group of eight senators along with Mr. McCain, said Mr. Obama handled his speech perfectly.
"He is using the bully pulpit to focus the nation's attention on the urgency of immigration reform and set goals for action on this issue. But he is also giving lawmakers on both sides the space to form a bipartisan coalition," Mr. Schumer said.
In his remarks, Mr. Obama said more action needs to be taken on border security but touted the progress made by his administration and that of his predecessor, George W. Bush.
"We put more boots on the ground on the southern border than at any time in our history. And today, illegal crossings are down nearly 80 percent from their peak in 2000," he said.
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