Published: June 20, 2013
WASHINGTON — The hide-out has no sign on the door, but inside Dirksen 201 is a spare suite of offices the White House has transformed into its covert immigration war room on Capitol Hill.
Stephen Crowley/The New York Times
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