WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama told House Republicans Wednesday that they would benefit politically more than Democrats would from supporting a comprehensive immigration overhaul, lawmakers present said.
One lawmaker, Rep. Phil Roe of Tennessee, said the argument elicited "light chuckles" from the assembled lawmakers, many of whom are skeptical of Obama and of efforts toward overhauling immigration laws that would put an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants on a path to citizenship.
The exchange came during a meeting between Obama and the House Republican Conference at the Capitol Wednesday, part of Obama's new outreach to the GOP on budgetary and other issues.
The lawmakers said Obama recounted his own experience in November capturing more than 70 percent of the Hispanic vote as he won re-election, and told the Republicans that they stood to gain more than he did from supporting a sweeping immigration law rewrite.
"He said that actually implementing immigration reform would actually benefit — I'm just stating what he said — that it would actually benefit Republicans more than it would Democrats," said Rep. Scott Rigell, R-Va.
Obama argued "it's in our own best interest" to support an immigration bill, Rigell said.
Rigell and Rep. Pete King, R-N.Y., said Obama's comments on immigration came as he sought to dispute lawmakers who might think he's not sincere. Obama said that "his willingness to address immigration, which he argued would benefit Republicans more than Democrats, is an indication that he is sincere," Rigell said.
King said Obama's argument went this way: "Right now he gets 75 percent of the Hispanic vote because Republicans are against immigration reform, so if we vote for it he's not going to pick up any new votes in the Hispanic community and we can."
Exit polls used by the AP actually showed Obama getting 71 percent of the Latino vote in November.
"There's something to it," King said of Obama's argument, though he noted that there's also an argument to be made that legalizing the immigration status of 11 million people would help Democrats; many would likely vote Democratic.
Obama also said that if he were only motivated by getting more Democrats elected in the 2014 midterm elections, he wouldn't be pushing for immigration reform because it's likely in his party's interest to be able to paint Republicans as obstructionists on the issue, according to a person in the room who requested anonymity in order to discuss the private meeting.
Prominent Republicans including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., also have argued that Republicans must support immigration reform if they want to win over Hispanic voters. But it wasn't clear that Obama's political argument to House Republicans he's spent years clashing with would win many converts.
"Good debaters typically will present you a false narrative, and he's very good at that," Roe said.
Obama said there probably was only about a nine-month window to get "anything really substantive done" on immigration before election season starts again, Rigell said.
A bipartisan group of senators is working to unveil a comprehensive immigration bill next month, and there's also a bipartisan group in the House that's been working on the issue, though the House is expected to let the Senate act first. Obama has drafted his own immigration legislation but says he will only unveil it if the Senate group doesn't move quickly enough.
Also on Wednesday, Obama discussed his immigration plans with corporate executives. The White House said the 17 CEOs supported the effort embraced by Obama and by the senators, especially a path to citizenship that requires immigrants illegally in the U.S. to pay back taxes, a fine and to fall in line behind people already seeking to enter the country legally.
AP White House Correspondent Julie Pace contributed to this report.