Column | Assessing the odds on Obama’s immigration remarks

On the morning of President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech, the lead story on the front page of The New York Times laid out the details — and the politics — of the immigration plan House Republican leaders are unveiling at this week’s party conference.

In the end, that meeting may prove more consequential than anything the president said during Tuesday night’s 65-minute speech or that Republicans added in response.

Obama presented Congress and millions of viewers with a politically appealing mix of modestly repackaged proposals, pleas for action on tax reforms Republicans want and unemployment benefits and the minimum wage increase Democrats favor, plus a vigorous defense of his troubled health-reform law.

Political reaction mostly followed the usual partisan lines with Republicans especially critical of Obama’s vow to use executive powers where Congress fails to act.

However, some embattled Democratic senators sought to separate themselves from Obama. A CNN poll of speech viewers showed mainly positive responses, probably reflecting the fact that more of any president’s partisans watch such presentations.

Judging from post-speech commentary, Obama’s carefully crafted array of proposals — and an emotional climax featuring a soldier wounded in Afghanistan — was far more effective than Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers’ official GOP response, long on criticism and short on specifics.

Neither advanced the immigration debate.

“It is time to heed the call of business leaders, labor leaders, faith leaders and law enforcement — and fix our broken immigration system,” Obama said, citing massive economic benefits some economists say would follow.

He avoided specifics, notably the GOP-opposed provision in the Senate bill providing a path for illegal immigrants to citizenship, thus leaving open the prospect of a subsequent compromise if the House passes some form of its plan. But differences remain obvious.

McMorris Rodgers, echoing four House Judiciary Committee-approved bills, called for “a step-by-step solution to immigration reform by first securing our borders and making sure America will always attract the best, brightest and hardest-working from around the world.”

In the GOP’s Spanish language response, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, of Florida, called similarly for fixing “our broken immigration system with a permanent solution.”

Their language reflected the stance of Speaker John Boehner and other House GOP leaders. But the party’s substantial tea party faction opposes action now, as do important outside conservative voices, such as the magazines National Review and Weekly Standard.

The tea party opposition was reflected in the decisions by its designated spokesman, Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, and another GOP responder, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, to avoid the subject in listing proposals for action.

The Judiciary Committee measures would give states more power to create and enforce immigration law, expand use of electronic databases to screen job applicants, create a new temporary agricultural guest-worker program and expand the number of green cards for temporary high-skilled workers and immigrant entrepreneurs.

Though far more limited than the Obama-backed, Senate-passed bill, that could lead to a negotiable version of the legislation he made a major second-term goal and Republicans need to improve their standing with Hispanics.

Still, a GOP decision to proceed with legislation won’t necessarily mean it will pass, given conservative concentration on strengthening enforcement of current laws and expanding a guest-worker program.

Republican leaders favor a path to legal status, rather than citizenship, for the 11 million adult illegal aliens in this country. That’s a nonstarter for reform advocates, who back the Senate bill’s path to citizenship, though only after a lengthy process.

In the end, any resolution may depend on how badly each party wants a bill, which side is willing to compromise, and by how much. Senate Democrats are insisting so far on their bill’s path to citizenship, while House Republicans flatly oppose it.

But Obama may be open to compromise, given the likelihood he won’t have much else to show legislatively for 2014.