President Barack Obama’s senior adviser on Thursday told a conference of investors and elite political donors in Las Vegas that the White House believes it can get Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform this summer.
Valerie Jarrett said she had dimmer hopes for free trade agreements with Europe and Asia, predicting those might have to wait until after the 2014 midterm elections are over in November.
As for hot-button issues such as raising the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour and gun control, Jarrett said the White House will go around Congress and work “city by city and state by state” if Republicans don’t cooperate.
“If we can’t get it done in Washington, we’re going to get it done at the local level,” Jarrett said. “Collectively we can make a huge difference.”
Jarrett was speaking to the SkyBridge Alternatives Conference, which holds a yearly conference of hedge fund managers, political and business leaders and celebrities.
Most of the invitation-only event’s forums are off the record so participants — about 1,800 this year at the Bellagio — can speak freely.
Before Jarrett’s session, for example, an off-the-record chat was headlined by political gurus James Carville, who helped elect former President Bill Clinton; David Plouffe, who was behind Obama’s winning presidential campaigns; and Karl Rove, who was key to former President George W. Bush’s victories.
Wednesday night, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair participated in an off-the-record dinner along with Kevin Spacey, the star of “House of Cards,” the Netflix show which portrays behind-the-scenes political goings on. Former basketball player Magic Johnson also was a featured speaker.
Jarrett, a longtime colleague and friend of Michelle and Barack Obama from their Chicago days, has the ear of the president and works mostly with the nation’s mayors and governors to accomplish his agenda.
On comprehensive immigration reform, the Democratic-controlled U.S. Senate has passed a bill to provide a path to American citizenship for 11 million immigrants living in the country illegally.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has told the administration he would like to see immigration reform pass as well, Jarrett said, although plenty of GOP caucus members are against the Senate bill, particularly those aligned with the conservative tea party movement.
Jarrett believes Boehner will allow a comprehensive immigration reform bill, or a package of bills, to come up for a vote after the primary election to avoid spoiling some GOP candidates’ chances.
“I think we have a window this summer, between now and August, to get something done,” Jarrett said. “We have a commitment from Speaker Boehner, who’s very frustrated with his caucus.”
She said the U.S. economy could benefit by about $1.4 trillion over the next 20 years if immigration reform passes. She noted that polls show Americans favor such a measure, as do the law enforcement and faith communities and the high-tech industry that needs educated workers. Low-wage immigrant agricultural workers also are needed.
“We haven’t been able to find that many people who aren’t in support of it,” Jarrett said, adding that vote counters in Congress say immigration reform would easily pass the GOP-led House. “This is an opportunity that we should seize. … The Senate bill would pass today in the House.”
Jarrett said the White House doesn’t care if immigration reform is accomplished in one bill or multiple bills, which is preferred by Republicans leery of omnibus legislation.
“There’s a lot of ways to skin a cat,” Jarrett said. “I feel very encouraged about immigration reform. I think you’re going to see mounting pressure.”
While Republicans have been blocking immigration reform, Democrats have been standing in the way of free trade agreements. Jarrett said the administration will keep pushing but it might take some time.
“I’m not sure it will happen this year, but I think it will get done,” she said.
On another hot-button issue, Obama views as a “big disappointment” not being able to get Congress to approve stricter gun control laws after the Newtown massacre of school children, according to Jarrett.
“Newtown was probably one of the most painful days … seeing that many families in such raw pain that was so needless,” she said.
Since Congress won’t act on gun control, Jarrett said the administration is working with local leaders such as former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to get cities and states to pass stricter laws.
“We’re just going to take it city by city and state by state,” she said. “You’re going to see changes at local levels.”
She said the same goes for the proposed federal minimum wage of $10.10, with some states already approving higher wages such as Maryland next to Washington, D.C. By executive order, Obama raised the minimum wage to $10.10 for new federal contractors, she noted.
Obama “does not believe in this country that you should have to raise your children in poverty,” Jarrett said, winning applause from several hundred audience members. “Cities and states across the country are acting on their own.”
She noted that 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney came out in favor of raising the federal minimum wage.
“This should not be a partisan issue,” she said.
Contact Laura Myers at email@example.com or 702-387-2919. Find her on Twitter: @lmyerslvrj.