WASHINGTON As President Barack Obama settles on a strategy to overhaul the nation's immigration laws, he faces a quandary that speaks volumes about the bitter nature of politics in a divided capital: the very fact that a plan with Obama's name on it might be enough to kill it.
Obama will relaunch his immigration reform drive Tuesday in Las Vegas, where heavy turnout by Latino voters in November's election helped seal his victory. But some allies in Congress warn that embracing too specific a proposal could mean its death warrant.
Republicans, they say, would feel compelled to oppose a bill identified explicitly with Obama. Better, they advise, to announce broad principles and avoid particulars, even if that violates a campaign pledge to propose legislation. Obama promised to do that in his first campaign, did not deliver and vowed during his re-election campaign to make up for that failure.
The toxic nature of the Obama brand in Republican circles has become a factor that affects White House decisions large and small. Aides still recall with astonishment that when Obama invited members of Congress to the White House to watch the movie "Lincoln" last year, at a screening attended by some of the film's stars, not a single GOP lawmaker attended.
That acute Obama-aversion has forced the White House to step carefully as it moves ahead on second-term priorities. On gun control, Obama aides felt he had little to lose by laying out specific recommendations because most Republicans were certain to oppose them.
But on immigration, a bipartisan group of senators is working on a proposal. Legislation from the White House could disrupt that, and reduce hopes for major legislation, lawmakers have warned.
This fight over tactics belies some substantial agreement emerging on the broad areas that must be addressed the most notable being a growing consensus that any legislation must create a way for the country's estimated 11 million illegal immigrants to obtain legal status. Both Democrats and Republicans also are primed to make changes to the way businesses verify a worker's legal status and to update the criteria for legal immigration.
But in a capital ruled by partisanship, ambition and egos, agreeing on policy doesn't get the deal done. Democrats remain divided over how aggressively the president should lead, and Republicans, the few who are publicly endorsing the reform effort, want Obama to stay at a distance.
In a sign of the tension, the bipartisan Senate group, upon hearing last week of the president's plans for a speech, hustled to finish a statement of immigration principles to unveil Monday or Tuesday, ahead of Obama's official launch, a Senate aide said.
The White House sees the pitfalls, and officials said Obama is moving cautiously.
In his remarks Tuesday, Obama is expected to draw from his May 2011 immigration blueprint and may declare some elements non-negotiable. Among other reforms included in the 29-page proposal, Obama emphasized improving border security, expanding the system employers use to verify the legal status of workers, and creating a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
This leading from the bully pulpit has become Obama's strength in his frequent tussles with Republicans in Congress. Obama has pressured them into raising taxes on the rich and giving students a break on their loans, but has had less success in leading by trying to legislate, as Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., encouraged him to do last week.
"If the president does send up specific language, that would make it easier because we'll work from that," Leahy said in a C-SPAN interview.
Not all Democrats agree. At a meeting with Latino lawmakers at the White House on Friday, Obama heard both pieces of advice, according to people who attended the meeting. Some lawmakers urged Obama to move quickly, leaving behind the bipartisan effort, while others asked him not to put forward a bill. Obama appeared frustrated, said one congressional aide.
This frustration is familiar to the White House. Obama, who has been described as "leading from behind," has often chosen to take a less engaged legislative role, only to take heat from his own party for being too passive. When Obama does engage directly, his unpopularity among Republicans works against him.
The bipartisan Senate group on immigration has been meeting for eight weeks. Its members include Democrats Charles Schumer of New York, Richard Durbin of Illinois and Robert Menendez of New Jersey; and Republicans John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Marco Rubio of Florida.
These six senators have committed to a bipartisan statement on what should be in a bill, a Senate aide said, including a pathway to legal status for illegal immigrants in the country, increased border security and tougher immigration checks by employers.