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White House drafts backup immigration plan, Republicans balk

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks from the briefing room of the White House in Washington February 5, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks from the briefing room of the White House in Washington February 5, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The White House is drafting a backup immigration reform plan in case a bipartisan congressional committee working on a bill fails, an Obama Administration official said on Sunday, though a key Republican said the president's plan would be "dead on arrival" on Capitol Hill.

White House Chief of staff Denis McDonough said the administration hoped that bipartisan efforts would deliver a broadly acceptable package, but wanted a plan B.

"We're doing exactly what the president said we would do last month ... which is we're preparing. We're going to be ready," he said on ABC's "This Week' program, confirming a published report on Saturday disclosing the White House effort.

Politicians on both sides of the aisle are anxious to tackle immigration reform, after the increasingly influential Latino vote turned out heavily in favor of President Barack Obama and his Democrats in the November 2012 election.

USA Today said on Saturday that a draft of a White House immigration proposal would allow illegal immigrants to become legal permanent residents within eight years.

The plan, obtained by the newspaper, also would provide for more security funding and require businesses to check the immigration status of new hires within four years.

McDonough gave no details of White House's plan, but said it was important that immigration reform passed this year and made clear the administration hoped bipartisan efforts on Capitol Hill bore fruit.

"So let's make sure they get this thing done, and they're up there working on it right now. We have to make progress on immigration reform, we should enact it this year and the president will continue to work with the team to make sure that happens."

Obama emphasized in last week's State of the Union address the importance of creating a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million immigrants who are in the United States illegally. Many Republicans stress that the nation's borders must be secured first.

Latinos favored Obama over Republican Mitt Romney in the November 6 election by 71 percent to 27 percent, helping tilt politically divided states to the Democratic incumbent.

Republicans want to show Latinos they understand their concerns on immigration, but must also be mindful of conservative members of their own party who worry about encouraging even more illegal immigration in the future.

Senator Marco Rubio, the key Republican on the issue and one of the eight senators on the committee crafting the legislation, dismissed the White House draft as a seriously flawed rehash of failed immigration policies that would make the country's immigration problems worse.

"If actually proposed, the president's bill would be dead on arrival in Congress, leaving us with unsecured borders and a broken legal immigration system for years to come," Rubio, who is a Cuban-American from Florida, said in a statement on Saturday.

SECURE BORDERS FIRST

According to USA Today, illegal immigrants could also apply for a newly created "Lawful Prospective Immigrant" visa, under the White House's draft bill. If approved, they could apply for the same provisional legal status for spouses or children living outside the country, according to the draft.

Conservative Republicans like Senator Rand Paul want borders to be first secured before they can endorse any immigration reform.

"I will support it on one condition: That we have a report that says the borders are being secured ... (it has to be) a report and comes back and is voted on in Congress," Paul said on "Fox News Sunday."

"I won't do it on a promise from President Obama, that he will secure the borders," Paul, from Kentucky, added.

Paul Ryan, the Republican vice president candidate in last year's elections, suggested the White House plan was leaked intentionally.

"By putting these details out ... that tells us he is looking for partisan advantage and not a bipartisan solution. This particular move is counter productive," Ryan said on ABC's "This Week" program.

A White House official denied it was leaked.

"This was not the administration floating anything. ... We were surprised to learn what appeared to be draft language had been given to the press, thought it was unfortunate, and reached out to senate offices on both sides of the aisle on Saturday evening to make that clear."

(Additional reporting by Alister Bull, Steve Holland and Paul Simao; Editing by Philip Barbara)

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