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White House says leaked immigration plan a backup if Congress doesn't act

President Barack Obama speaks to students and guests during a visit to Hyde Park Academy High School on Feb. 15, 2013, in Chicago, Ill.Scott Olson / Getty Images

President Barack Obama’s draft immigration proposal is nothing more than a backup plan in case Congress fails to produce comprehensive legislation of their own, a White House official said Monday.

“The administration will be ready to move forward in the event the bipartisan process gets bogged down and is not able to produce a bill,” the administration official said. “But our focus remains on supporting the congressional process.”

The president set off a firestorm Saturday night when USA Today reported it had obtained a draft of the White House immigration plan. Republicans in Congress quickly panned the administration for leaking the proposal with no bipartisan input.

But the White House official said the administration was not “floating anything” and was “surprised” to find out the press had obtained the details.  Instead, the official said, the White House was simply preparing for the possibility that the current political climate could cause gridlock that would delay or prevent the president from following through on one of his campaign promises.

“We’ll be prepared in the event that the bipartisan talks going on on the Hill -- which by the way we’re aggressively supporting --  if those do not work out, then we’ll have an option we’re ready to put out there,” White House chief of staff Denis McDonough said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet The Press.”

But on msnbc on Monday, a former senior adviser to the president, David Axelrod, conceded that the administration likely made an error by circulating the memo to various government agencies and throughout the West Wing. “The mistake there was to disseminate it so widely in the administration that it got leaked, and I’m sure if they could they’d take that back,” he said.

The leak solicited immediate reaction from Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who issued a statement saying the plan would be “dead on arrival” and calling it “a mistake” for the White House to draft a plan without consulting with Republicans in Congress.

Rubio is part of a bipartisan group of senators that announced last month that they had agreed on principles that could pave the way for a bill that would overhaul the nation’s immigration laws. Those tenets include creating a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants already in the country and developing a system to ensure employers don’t hire illegal immigrants.

The White House proposal would allow illegal immigrants to become permanent residents within eight years, as well as create a lawful prospective immigrant visa, require employers to check the immigration status of workers and provide more border security funding.

Since Obama’s re-election in November, fueled by Hispanic voters, the president has renewed calls for comprehensive immigration reform. News of the White House proposal came just days after the president lauded the Senate’s work during last week’s State of the Union address.

“As we speak, bipartisan groups in both chambers are working diligently to draft a bill, and I applaud their efforts,” Obama said. “Now let’s get this done. Send me a comprehensive immigration reform bill in the next few months, and I will sign it right away."

The White House official said the focus “remains on supporting the congressional process” and that after the draft became public late Saturday, members of the administration reached out to senators on both sides of the aisle.

Still, that did not stop Republicans from panning the proposals on the Sunday morning talk shows.

Rep. Paul Ryan, R–Wisc., said on ABC’s “This Week” that the leaked plan “tells us that (Obama is) looking for a partisan advantage and not a bipartisan solution.”

On NBC’s “Meet The Press,” Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, a member of the group of senators working to craft a bipartisan immigration bill, called on the president to shelve his proposal and allow Congress to continue working on legislation. 

“I believe we are making progress on a bipartisan basis,” said McCain. “I believe we can come up with a product.”

And the White House says it is still optimistic that a solution can come from Congress. “The President is pleased by current state of progress being made by bipartisan efforts on the Hill and the Administration looks forward to continuing to work with them,” said the official.

NBC's Shawna Thomas contributed to this report