Wall Street Journal
By Carol E. Lee
November 20, 2013
WASHINGTON—President Barack Obama said Tuesday he would accept a piecemeal approach to overhauling the immigration system, a move aimed at jump-starting a moribund process that reflects the realities of a divided Congress.
Mr. Obama has long favored the sweeping immigration bill that passed the Senate in June, but the House has made clear it wouldn't consider that measure. In a wide-ranging interview before business executives at The Wall Street Journal CEO Council, the president said he is amenable to House Republicans' taking up elements of the Senate bill, as long as the end result is the same.
"If they want to chop that thing up into five pieces, as long as all five pieces get done, I don't care what it looks like," Mr. Obama said. "What we don't want to do is simply carve out one piece of it…but leave behind some of the tougher stuff that still needs to get done."
Many advocates of a broad immigration overhaul have worried that Congress would pass some elements, such as business-backed measures allowing more temporary workers into the country, without setting a path to citizenship for people now in the U.S. illegally, as the Senate bill does. Mr. Obama's statement was his most extensive about accepting a piecemeal approach.
The president said he was "optimistic" that Congress would meet the goal he set of passing an immigration bill by the end of the year.
But just after Mr. Obama spoke, Rep. Paul Ryan (R., Wis.), chairman of the House Budget Committee, poured cold water on that idea. In his own appearance before The Wall Street Journal CEO Council, Mr. Ryan said there wasn't enough time left to tackle immigration this year.
President Obama says "we need to fend off efforts to completely undermine" ObamaCare, sharing his personal thoughts in a session with WSJ's Jerry Seib at Tuesday's CEO Council.
Beyond immigration, Mr. Obama also detailed some of the sanctions relief that world powers may give Iran in exchange for Tehran's halting parts of its nuclear program.
The president is facing criticism over the prospect that the U.S. and its allies would relieve some sanctions without gaining a more robust commitment from the Iranians to curtail their nuclear program. But Mr. Obama said any deal would initially leave the toughest sanctions in place.
"Part of the reason I have confidence that the sanctions don't fall apart is because we're not doing anything around the most powerful sanctions: the oil sanctions, the banking sanctions, the financial-services sanctions," Mr. Obama said. "Those are the ones that have really taken a big chunk out of the Iranian economy."
A deal on Iran, which he said he is unsure will be reached this week when talks resume in Geneva, "would purchase a period of time—let's say six months—during which we could see if they could get to the end state of a position where we, the Israelis, the international community could say with confidence, Iran's not pursuing a nuclear weapon."
On the hottest domestic issue dogging the White House, the president indicated his administration is considering a relaunch of the government's troubled health-care website, which has frustrated Americans looking to purchase insurance.
He said he was confident the system eventually would succeed. But given the problems plaguing the site, he said, "We're going to have to, obviously, remarket and rebrand, and that will be challenging in this political environment." An administration aide said Mr. Obama was referring to the need to persuade Americans to see the law more positively once the website is working properly.
Mr. Obama, in the interview, laid partial blame for the troubled implementation of the health overhaul on political partisanship. "One side of Capitol Hill is invested in failure, and that makes, I think, the kind of iterative process of fixing glitches as they come up and fine-tuning the law more challenging," he said.
The president's proposals have stalled in Congress during his second term, among them plans to boost infrastructure spending, expand early-childhood education and raise the federal minimum wage. His approval rating has taken a hit amid the bungled rollout of the health law, which he described as "rough—to say the least."
"My understanding is, nobody in this town is doing particularly well at the moment when it comes to the opinions of the American people," Mr. Obama said. Still, the president said the American economy was "poised for a breakout," and he sought to befriend an audience that has at times had a tense relationship with the White House, telling the room full of chief executives: "I'm rooting for your success."
As part of his use of executive power to push his economic agenda, Mr. Obama announced a $100 million high-school grant program aimed at finding new ways to better prepare students for a global high-tech economy.
On immigration, House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) said last week he wasn't willing to negotiate legislation with the Senate if its starting point was that bill. Since the summer, Mr. Boehner has said the House would instead consider immigration in pieces, with separate bills addressing different parts of the system, such as visas for agriculture or high-tech workers, border security and employment verification.
House leaders haven't said whether the House would consider legislation offering legal status or citizenship to the more than 11 million people in the U.S. illegally, an element that Democrats and advocates of the Senate bill say must be included in any bill or package of bills.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.) said he was skeptical about Mr. Obama's remarks accepting a piecemeal approach. "House members need to be on alert: It's not step-by-step if the individual bills are combined into a comprehensive proposal in a backroom negotiation and delivered to the president's desk," Mr. Sessions said in a statement. "Instead, the House must insist that enforcement is accomplished before advancing any other immigration bills."
Geoff Burr, chief lobbyist for the Associated Builders & Contractors, said Mr. Obama's comments were "a positive step toward potentially fixing our broken immigration system." He said he hoped the Senate Democratic leader would now "follow the president's lead and consider alternative legislative pathways to achieving reform."
Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, who leads a coalition of businesses that backs an immigration overhaul, said Mr. Obama had never before been as explicit about accepting a piecemeal approach. "So, this is a good thing," he said. "It shows he is serious about getting it done."
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