WASHINGTON - The White House on Tuesday sought to keep delicate immigration negotiations on track, as a key Republican senator distanced himself further from a draft bill President Barack Obama's aides are readying in case congressional talks crumble.
Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio's office said Obama's plan "injected additional partisanship into an already difficult process." The White House, following the weekend leak of its draft legislation, insisted the president wants the bipartisan Senate group Rubio is a member of to put forward its own bill instead.
Obama spoke with Rubio on Tuesday to reiterate his commitment to the Senate process and to make clear that he had his own legislation ready, the White House said. The president also called Republicans Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John McCain of Arizona, two other GOP lawmakers involved in the immigration negotiations.
"It is, by far, the president's preference that the Senate process move forward, that the bipartisan group of eight have success, and that they produce a bill that wins the support of Democrats and Republicans in Senate," White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
Senate aides said privately Tuesday that bipartisan negotiations are in a good place and they did not feel as though the disclosure of details in Obama's draft bill would disrupt their process. In fact, Obama's backup bill could end up spurring GOP lawmakers to rally behind a congressional plan with many similarities rather than support legislation attached to the president.
While they differ on some key details, both sides are contemplating legislation that would provide a pathway to citizenship for most of the 11 million illegal immigrants already in the U.S., tighten border security, crack down on businesses that employ illegal workers and strengthen the legal immigration system.
Rubio, a rising Republican star and favorite of his party's conservative wing, has particular incentive to publicly disavow Obama's proposals.
As one of his party's leading voices on immigration, Rubio will be called on to sell other conservatives on any deal and he knows that doing so will be harder if that deal has the president's stamp on it. He'll also have to convince Republicans that a bipartisan Senate agreement would be more conservative than what Obama would propose on his own.
Rubio's office, trying to further distance itself from the White House, insisted Tuesday that the senator's team had not been in talks with the administration on immigration. But Rubio spokesman Alex Conant later said that a representative from the senator's office participated in five meetings with administration officials.
Administration officials said they were willing to take hits from the Florida lawmaker if doing so gave him the cover to work with Senate Democrats to reach a deal.
"As long as Sen. Rubio and the rest of the gang are making real progress on immigration reform, we are happy to be on the sidelines and even serve as a punching bag every once in a while," Dan Pfeiffer, Obama's senior adviser, said.
The White House insisted it did not intentionally leak details of its immigration plan, which circulated widely at key government agencies. Top Obama aides tried to clear up the mess over the weekend, sending apologetic emails to the offices of the eight senators, including Rubio, at the center of the Capitol Hill negotiations.