A bipartisan group of senators working on an immigration reform plan include,… (Jim Lo Scalzo / European…)
WASHINGTON — The White House scrambled Sunday to keep congressional negotiations over immigration reform on track, reassuring senators it did not leak details of a draft bill being written by the administration.
White House aides were caught by surprise when details from a draft of an administration bill were published Saturday, and quickly contacted the eight Republican and Democratic senators who have been working behind the scenes to hammer out a compromise bill.
Obama's aides stressed in the phone calls that the president is pleased with the progress in Congress and said the administration had not leaked the details to nudge the process along, according to a White House official who asked not to be named describing private conversations.
"This was not the administration floating anything," the official said, calling the disclosure "unfortunate" and adding that any draft being circulated to federal agencies would be in its early stages.
Obama said last month that he would propose his own legislation only if the Senate drive stalled.
The furious Republican response to the disclosure — Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida called the draft bill "half-baked and seriously flawed," former GOP vice presidential candidate Rep. Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin called the leak "counterproductive" — highlighted how fraught the negotiations have become.
"This raises the question: Does the president really want a result, or does he want another cudgel to beat up Republicans so that he can get political advantage in the next election?" Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) asked on NBC's "Meet the Press."
McCain is one of four Republicans, including Rubio, in the so-called Group of Eight along with four Democrats who are trying to forge an immigration overhaul.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), another member of the group, said he was not upset at the leaked draft legislation.
Obama "agreed to give us the space we need to come up with a bipartisan proposal," Schumer said on CNN's "State of the Union." "I am very hopeful that in March we will have a bipartisan bill."
Denis McDonough, the newly appointed White House chief of staff, used previously scheduled appearances on several TV talk shows to contain the political damage. He reiterated that the White House would try to push its own bill only if the efforts in Congress failed to move quickly.
"Let's make sure that it doesn't have to be proposed," McDonough said on ABC News' "This Week with George Stephanopoulos," adding that the administration is "aggressively supporting" the eight senators.
White House staff have provided technical assistance to the group for three weeks, a Senate aide said later.
Details of the draft bill, which includes an eight-year waiting period before legalized immigrants can receive a green card, were first published late Saturday by USA Today. The White House did not confirm whether the reported details represented the current version of the draft.
An official who has read the draft said it would allow the 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States to apply for a "lawful prospective immigrant" visa and, if approved, ultimately become permanent residents. The bill also would increase customs officers at ports of entry, and expand other border security measures.
The bill would also require employers to develop a system to check the immigration status of new hires within five years. It calls for hiring 140 new immigration judges to speed up cases and requires the Social Security Administration to redesign Social Security cards to make them harder to forge, said the official who spoke on the condition of anonymity while discussing internal deliberations.
Those proposals track closely with legislation that failed in Congress in the past, as well as reforms Obama previously proposed. In 2011, Obama unveiled a blueprint that called for setting an eight-year waiting period for an illegal immigrant to become a legal permanent resident, and an additional five-year delay to attain citizenship.
Immigrant rights advocates described the White House approach as too modest, and said the draft bill would create unreasonable delays for illegal immigrants to achieve legal status.
Gordon Whitman, policy director for the PICO National Network, which represents more than 1,000 churches, called the president's proposal "too weak" for an opening bid.
Times staff writer Don Lee in Washington contributed to this report.