Obama plays footsy with Boehner, Ryan

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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President Barack Obama sent a very public mash-note on Friday to GOP House Speaker John Boehner and to Wisconsin Republican Rep. Paul Ryan as he tried to win their support for a transformative immigration bill in 2014.

And the GOP leadership is sending out welcome signals.

Obama used his end-of-year press conference to compliment the GOP leaders, only two months after he lashed at them as terrorists, arsonists and blackmailers.

“If you look at, for example, immigration reform, probably the biggest thing that I wanted to get done this year, we saw progress,” Obama said. “There are indications in the House that even though it did not get completed this year, that there is a commitment on the part of this Speaker to try to move forward legislation early next year,” the president said.

Those compliments were extended to Ryan, who is acting a primary closed-door advocate for the immigration rewrite.

“I want to emphasize the positive as we enter into this holiday season… Congressman Ryan and [Democratic] Senator [Pat] Murray did a good job in trying to narrow the differences and actually pass a [2014] budget that I can sign,” he said.

That’s a sharp difference from the president’s incendiary and divisive rhetoric during the October funding-impasse.

Back then, he announced GOP legislators as arsonists, kidnappers, deadbeats, butchers, lunatics and extortionists, obsessives, out-of-touch hostage-takers, nuclear-armed bombers, and unserious irresponsible extremists, and also determined to deny health-care to Americans.

The divisive strategy helped him and his media allies win the budget fight, but it also crippled his push for increased immigration.

Since the fall, numerous GOP legislators have backed away from any immigration bill, while citing Obama’s partisan attacks.

“Instead of doing what’s right for America, President Obama time and again has unilaterally disregarded the U.S. Constitution, the letter of the law and bypassed the Congress — the body most representative of the people — in order to advance his political agenda,” said a September letter from two leading GOP advocates for increased immigration.

But Obama’s new complimentary rhetoric is being reciprocated by the GOP’s leadership, which is looking for a win during the pending collision over the debt-ceiling fight.

GOP leaders — including Ryan — have said they want to get something in exchange for raising the government’s credit-limit, now set at $17 trillion.

When asked about the debt ceiling fight, Obama didn’t slash at the GOP, but complimented Ryan’s work with Sen. Murray on the 2014 budget agreement.

“It’s not everything that I would like, obviously… But you know, it was an honest conversation. They operated in good faith,” said Obama.

“I hope that creates a good pattern for next year, where work on, at least, the things we agreed to, even if we agree to disagree on some of the other big-ticket items,” he said, adding that “I think immigration potentially falls in that category.”

The GOP’s leaders may be returning the favor, mostly because their business allies would profit greatly from any influx of new labor.

“We just saw a budget deal that made progress that brought people together from both sides from very different perspectives and I suspect that can be done on immigration as well,” Rep. Tom Cole, a close Boehner ally, told The Hill newspaper.

Cole cited the debt-ceiling fight, due for January, as testing-ground for cooperation on immigration. “How that issue plays out, what kind of agreements are reached, whether or not we see this kind of bipartisanship that we saw [in December] will have a lot to do with what the mood is” on immigration, he said.

Despite his talk about an immigration deal, Cole left plenty of room to back out of any immigration deal.

“I don’t think the speaker has yet made a decision when and whether he will put the four bill that that have already passed the judiciary committee… on the floor,” he said.

“It’s a volatile issue, it is political year, and I think [an immigration increase] its going to be extremely difficult to move,” Cole said.

The bill is difficult to move because the two main parts — the amnesty for at least 11 million illegals and doubled inflow of foreign workers — are so unpopular among the swing-voters and GOP base-voters needed by for victory in November.

Forty-eight percent of independent voters in Iowa are less likely to back a politician who supports a “path to citizenship” for illegal immigrants, according to December poll by Quinnipiac University. Only one out of eight centrist voters strongly back an amnesty for illegal immigrants, according to an October poll by Obama’s 2012 polling firm. An August poll commissioned by a reform group showed that only two percent of respondents strongly back laws allowing businesses to bring in immigrant workers instead of hiring Americans.

The Senate immigration bill, and its unpopularity, has divided the GOP’s leadership.

In the Senate, Sen. Jeff Sessions has led the opposition to the immigration bill, and had called for the GOP to raise wages by reducing immigration. That shift, he argues, would boost support for the GOP among working-class and middle-class Americans who voted Democratic, or did not vote at all, in the 2012 election.

Ryan, however, has sided with business and has declared that the country needs additional low-skill labor, even though 20 million Americans are unemployed or underemployed.

On a Dec. 16 radio interview, Ryan endorsed an increased inflow of low-wage foreign workers to compete for jobs against American workers. ”A legal immigration system that’s wired for your economy. … That is good for us, good for America, good for the Republicans,” Ryan told Charles Sykes, the 620 WTMJ radio interviewer.

He’s also argued for a permanent class of low-wage laborers. “You raise wages too much in certain industries, then you’ll get rid of those industries, and we’ll just have to import” products, Ryan said in a July 25 interview with National Journal.

Ryan’s 2014 budget deal — which increased spending and cut soldiers’ pensions — has exacerbated the intra-party fight over immigration.

In June, the Senate passed an immigration bill — backed by Obama and all Senate Democrats — that would triple legal immigration for the next decade to 30 million. It would also permanently double the annual immigration rate to 2 million per year, and roughly double the 650,000 annual inflow of temporary guest-workers for jobs in universities, wall Street, technology firms, healthcare centers, factories, hotels, resorts, restaurants and shops.

That’s almost enough extra workers in one decade to replace all Americans aged 20 to 30 who are now holding full-time jobs.

Obama endorsed the Senate bill in his year-end press conference.

“The truth of the matter is that the Senate bill has the main components of comprehensive immigration reform that would boost our economy, give us an opportunity to attract more investment and high-skilled workers who are doing great things in places like Silicon Valley and around the country,” he said. “So let’s go ahead and get that done.”

Critics, including the Congressional Budget Office, say immigration cuts Americans’ wages, increases unemployment of Americans and boosts the economic gap between rich and poor.

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Neil Munro