Stealth Campaign By WH To Shackel Americans With Immigration Bill

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The office where Obama aides are coordinating strategy on overhauling immigration laws.

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Strategically located down the hall from the Senate Judiciary Committee in one of the city’s massive Congressional office buildings, the work space normally reserved for the vice president is now the hub of a stealthy legislative operation run by President Obama’s staff. Their goal is to quietly secure passage of the first immigration overhaul in a quarter century.

“We are trying hard not to be heavy handed about what we are doing,” said Cecilia Muñoz, the director of the White House Domestic Policy Council and the president’s point person on immigration.

Six years ago President George W. Bush publicly sent cabinet secretaries to roam the Capitol building daily to try to woo Republican senators for a similar immigration bill. But this time, high-profile help from the White House is anathema to many Republicans who do not want to be seen by constituents as carrying out the will of Mr. Obama.

So while lawmakers from both parties are privately relying on the White House and its agencies to provide technical information to draft scores of amendments to the immigration bill, few Republicans are willing to admit it. Some are so eager to prove that the White House is not pulling the strings that their aides say the administration is not playing any role at all.

“President Obama’s concept of engaging Congress is giving a speech that nobody up here listens to,” said Alex Conant, a spokesman for Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, who is an important supporter of the immigration legislation. “If passing legislation is like making sausage, then this White House is like a bunch of vegetarians.”

As senators near a final tally on the 867-page bill before the July 4 holiday, immigration supporters acknowledge serious risks in Mr. Obama’s approach: leaving the public advocacy for a major piece of his legacy in the hands of others. If the bill fails to become law, Mr. Obama will be open to criticism from Hispanics that he did not put the weight of his office behind the legislation.

But Mr. Obama has made some careful public efforts, including a speech last week at the White House in which he strongly endorsed the legislation. On Tuesday while on Air Force One in Europe, he called a Democratic negotiator, Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York, to reinforce his opposition to part of a Republican amendment that would have what the administration views as unrealistically tough requirements for border security.

Inside Room 201, the administration has gathered a collection of its own Congressional lobbyists, policy specialists and experts from an alphabet soup of the agencies that will have to put the immigration legislation into effect if it passes. They all moved into the vice president’s offices on June 10, setting up laptop computers and thick binders filled with proposed amendments on an oval conference table.

“We have folks who know the Senate really well, who know the players, who have been through this before so they know exactly what Senate staff needs,” Ms. Muñoz said. “We are deeply, deeply engaged.”

The group is led by Ed Pagano, Mr. Obama’s chief liaison to the Senate and a former chief of staff to Senator Patrick J. Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who is chairman of the Judiciary Committee. He is joined by Felicia Escobar and Tyler Moran, senior advisers at the Domestic Policy Council, and Esther Olavarria, director for immigration reform for the National Security Council staff. Some days, Ms. Muñoz and Miguel Rodriguez, the president’s chief Congressional liaison, are there too.

On one day this week, those at the table included two representatives from the Justice Department, a homeland security official, a State Department official and someone from the Department of Labor. Throughout the day they pored through proposed amendments, offering suggestions to the staff of the senators who offered them and flagging problems that might arise.

 

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