Albert R. Hunt: Republicans Brace for Bitter Immigration Fight

Sunday, 03 Nov 2013 03:44 PM

 

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Republicans are thankful for President Barack Obama’s health-care law; it provides a respite from their bitter schisms.

The government shutdown and the near-default were devastating for the party. If it takes a drubbing, as expected, in the Virginia gubernatorial race this week, there will be fresh recriminations.

Looming is the immigration debate, which is even more divisive and politically perilous for Republicans. The House leadership will decide in the next few weeks whether to take up piecemeal measures, with an eye toward an eventual resolution with a Senate-passed bill, or to scuttle the law.

The party is as divided as the stakes are huge. Hundreds of conservative evangelicals and business people were in Washington last week to lobby for a bill. This is unprecedented support from those quarters.

But grass-roots activists and many right-wing politicians hate the Senate bill, which grants a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Its opponents argue that it’s a Democratic scheme and a gift to Obama.

This despite overwhelming evidence that the growing Hispanic and Asian-American electorates, and young voters, are strongly pro-immigration reform and are punishing Republicans at the polls. In an analysis of the 2012 elections, the Republican National Committee said that to attract more of the Hispanic vote, the party “must embrace and champion immigration reform.”

Piecemeal Measures

Speaker John Boehner and most of the House Republican leaders understand this. They would like to bring up a number of popular measures such as ones beefing-up border security, requiring worker verification and perhaps even legalizing younger immigrants, and figure out later how to reconcile them with the Senate-passed bill.

The problem is the several dozen members belonging to a “hell, no” contingent in House who will vote against any measure, even those they support, suspecting that they could be falling into a trap leading to a deal with the Senate. The speaker probably needs Democratic votes to secure passage.

But House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, who has a more unified caucus in support of immigration reform, will only provide those votes if the trap is real. She, the president and most Democrats insist on a comprehensive bill.

Privately, Republicans are experimenting with different strategies, with House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan in the forefront on the most controversial questions of legalization and citizenship. But the shutdown debacle has embittered some members and made them even less willing to be accommodating.

Senator Marco Rubio, a conservative who played a leading role in winning passage of the comprehensive bill in June, is emblematic of the divisiveness of the issue. His support for reform has demonstrably hurt his presidential ambitions among rank-and-file Republicans. The Florida lawmaker has since tried to placate the right on issues such as abortion and the government shutdown.

Last week, Rubio suggested that the House ought to adopt a scaled-back version of the law, taking up piecemeal measures. He no longer participates in immigration strategy with the other members of the bipartisan Group of Eight who steered the bill through the Senate.

Privately, some Republicans argue that even if immigration is a problem with voters nationally, it doesn’t affect their hold on the House because most of the party’s representatives are from safe districts. They ought to look at a recent study commissioned by the Campaign for Community Change. It’s a left- wing group, but the data, based on demographic changes among Hispanics and Asian-Americans, suggest that, all things being equal, Republicans would lose more than a dozen seats in the next two elections because of the immigration issue alone.

‘Demographic Change’

Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice and an advocate of immigration reform who has worked with Republicans and Democrats, shakes his head: “Every day, there is this relentless demographic change, and they act like nothing is happening.”

Rob Paral, a demographer who worked on the study, says many younger voters are also “much more immigration friendly.”

One consideration is that the immigration debate can be postponed until next year, once Republican primaries are over; the calendar and election-year environment make that unlikely.

That means that what the speaker and his lieutenants decide in the next few weeks could affect how Republicans fare in the next few decades.


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