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08-11-09, 12:14 AM #1
Get ready, Obama is promising an immigration reform bill this year
GUADALAJARA, Mexico — Under fire from immigration reform supporters who say he’s not moving fast enough, President Barack Obama said Monday he expects to have a draft immigration bill in Congress by year’s end — but that lawmakers wouldn’t begin to seriously debate the issue until next year.
He acknowledged that the fight for comprehensive reform would be difficult, saying, “Am I going to be able to snap my fingers and get this done? No. . . . There are going to be demagogues out there who try to suggest that any form of pathway for legalization for those who are already in the United States is unacceptable.”
Obama also predicted that Congress would pass his health reform bill later this year when more “sensible and reasoned arguments will emerge” — a clear reference to the increasingly heated attacks being leveled against his overhaul plan by opponents.
Obama brushed back a suggestion from a New York Times reporter that the “blows” he’s suffering in the health-care debate would weaken him too much to take on another massive legislative fight on immigration reform heading into the 2010 midterm elections.
“I anticipate we'll do just fine” in the midterms, Obama said. “And I think when all is said on health care reform, the American people are going to be glad that we acted to change an unsustainable system so that more people have coverage.”
On immigration, he added, “Those are fights that I'd have to have if my poll numbers are at 70 or if my poll numbers are at 40. That's just the nature of the U.S. immigration debate. But ultimately I think the American people want fairness.”
Immigration reform supporters have grown increasingly vocal in criticizing what some see as foot-dragging by Obama on the contentious issue — which President George W. Bush tried in his second term, only to see it fail and cause deep divisions within his own party. Obama’s comments Monday amounted to a firmer timetable than he has set down in the past and came at the end of a summit with his Canadian and Mexican counterparts here.
He spoke in similar terms about immigration and health reform, calling both a national imperative required to fix an unsustainable system. “We have a broken immigration system. Nobody denies it,” Obama said.
On health care, Obama denied that he’s pushing a Canadian-style nationalized medicine system for the United States — even though he said some opponents have tried to demonize the Canadian system as one that limits care and has long waiting lists.
“I don't find Canadians particularly scary, but I guess some of the opponents of reform think that they make a good boogeyman,” he said.
Obama also offered a strong defense of U.S. efforts to help restore Honduran President Manuel Zelaya after he was ousted in a coup six weeks ago. "The same critics who say that the United States has not intervened enough in Honduras are the same people who say that we're always intervening and the Yankees need to get out of Latin America,” he said. “You can't have it both ways.”
The expectations were low for Obama’s first summit with Mexican President Felipe Calderon and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and the three leaders met them.
As expected, they found common ground on combating a new surge in swine flu this fall, and they did, agreeing in a joint statement to build up public health capabilities and share information about the disease among the countries.
But they still did not reach consensus on lingering trade issues or an approach to rising drug cartel violence along the U.S.-Mexican border. Obama said the three leaders coordinated action on economic recovery. "We reaffirmed the need to reject protectionism," Obama said.
The Canadian and Mexican leaders came to Guadalajara with different grievances for the United States. But Calderon and Harper made their cases to Obama in meetings Sunday night and Monday morning.
During a one-on-one sit-down with Obama, Calderon raised concerns over delayed U.S. aid to Mexico for fighting drugs, as well as the ban on Mexican trucks in the United States.
The money — a $100 million installment of a drug-fighting plan called the Merida Initiative — is being held up in Congress under a provision that requires Mexico to meet human rights standards in its crackdown on drug cartels.
Obama defended Calderon’s handling of the cartels. “I have great confidence in President Calderon's administration applying the law enforcement techniques that are necessary to curb the power of the cartels, but doing so [in a way] that's consistent with human rights,” Obama said.
The trade issues — the ban on Mexican trucks and a provision in Obama’s $787 billion stimulus plan that favors American companies — are a bit more complicated. Obama is trying to strike a diplomatic balance with his neighbors and one of his key constituencies: labor.
The “Buy American” provision in the stimulus bill has strong backing from the U.S. steel and construction industries, and the Teamsters Union that represents American trucking companies is the lead advocate for the ban on Mexican trucks in the United States.
Harper confronted Obama with concerns from Canadian companies that the “Buy American” provision precludes them from competing for construction projects funded with stimulus money.
At the joint news conference, Obama sought to downplay the concerns, noting that the provisions apply only to spending in the stimulus package. “I think it's also important to keep it in perspective that, in fact, we have not seen some sweeping step toward protectionism,” Obama said.
Obama also seemed to get no closer to an agreement on the Mexican trucking issue. As it stands, the North American Free Trade Agreement requires the United States to allow Mexican trucks to cross the border, but the Teamsters Union has successfully argued to Congress that Mexican trucks are unsafe.
During the Bush administration, Congress adopted a pilot program under which some Mexican trucks were allowed to cross the border. Obama opposed the program as a senator. In March, Congress put an end to the trucking pilot program, under pressure from the Teamsters.
Now Mexican trucks must stop at the border, so the goods they’re carrying can be transferred onto U.S. trucks. Mexico pushed back by tacking additional tariffs onto goods imported by the United States, and Mexican truckers filed a $6 billion lawsuit against the U.S. government for violating NAFTA.
But the leaders were careful to say their disagreements have not hampered their ability to forge a collegial relationship.
The “Three Amigos,” as the participants in the North American Leaders’ Summit have been dubbed, tried to focus on the bright side — swine flu, energy and climate change, the economy. The now-global swine flu epidemic is believed to have started in Mexico in April just before Obama's last trip to the country, unbeknownst to the White House.
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