Obama to Draw Few Ultimatums in Immigration Speech

President Barack Obama gestures as he speaks in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Friday, Jan. 25, 2013, where he announced that he will name current Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough as his next chief of staff. (National Journal)

President Obama will make no ultimatums in his immigration speech on Tuesday other than to insist that any legislation must be comprehensive, according to administration officials.

Obama also wants immigration legislation to establish a path to citizenship for the undocumented immigrants, a proposal that makes many Republicans uncomfortable. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said Monday that he doesn't want a "special benefits" for illegal immigrants. Administration officials say Obama will not define how the citizenship has to occur in his speech Tuesday, but he will insist that citizenship is an eventual possibility for eligible undocumented immigrants.

The speech will mark the beginning of Obama's public campaign to change country's immigration system. A bipartisan group of senators made a similar proposal to the Congress on Monday. Administration officials are excited that they now have the best chance in a decade, or longer, to make sense of the country's immigration system — to legalize 11 million illegal immigrants, to establish an economy-based system for future immigrants, and to smooth employers' verification process.

Despite optimism on all sides, any small disagreement over provisions could stunt the legislative momentum. Immigration law is more complex than the tax code, and any tweak in one area messes up all the rest of them. The people directly affected by the outdated law are unlikely to be receptive to a legislation handled in a piecemeal fashion.

Obama is defining his role as the coach of a game that initially will play out in Congress. He has heeded the pleas of advocates from both political parties not to micro-manage the negotiations, which will be important in order to keep Republicans at the table. But, administration officials warn, if the process begins to slow, the president is prepared to step in with a broader role.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is on board with this plan, saying he wants legislation out of the Judiciary Committee and on to the Senate floor as soon as possible. Republicans say it is important that the legislation be negotiated in the regular fashion through the Judiciary Committee. That's exactly the plan, although congressional aides note that Reid is willing to step in and place a bill on the floor if the committee becomes deadlocked.

Obama has decided not to offer written legislation to the Congress, calming the fears of many in Congress that he will try to do their work for them.  The Senate "Gang of Eight's" principles will function as the starting document for the negotiations. Obama is encouraged by the agreement, but he will make clear that he wants to see the principles morph into actual legislation.