Some Republicans Push New Approach
The stars may be aligning for some sort of comprehensive immigration reform this year. Remember, I said maybe. The focus is on a plan coming from Senate Democrats and Republicans that would offer a path to citizenship for the 11 million or so illegal immigrants currently in the United States.
President Barack Obama praised the intent of the Senate plan even as he introduced a proposal of his own that would offer illegals a faster track to citizenship. Both the Obama and Senate plans would include provisions to improve border security and overhaul the immigration system.
The stage is now set for a lengthy debate and battle in both the Senate and House of Representatives. The bipartisan nature of the Senate plan suggests there may be enough common ground to put together a bill that could win approval, at least in the Senate. The question remains, however, if it could win approval in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, where many Tea Party supporting conservatives are still reluctant to support any immigration reform measure that offers anything remotely like an amnesty for those who have been in the country illegally for years.
Elections Have Consequences
Among the four Senate Republicans supporting the bipartisan bill on immigration is John McCain, the party’s 2008 presidential nominee and longtime senator from Arizona. McCain had a simple explanation as to why some Republicans now seem more open to reform. “Elections”, he said, adding that Republicans are losing support among Hispanic voters who see immigration reform as a key issue both now and in the future.
President Obama won 71 percent of the Hispanic vote last November and is well aware that Hispanic leaders are expecting action from the White House and congressional Democrats in his second term. Likewise, Republicans can’t ignore the election results and the fact they are losing ground among not only Hispanics, but Asian-Americans, the fastest growing ethnic group in the U.S.
Election defeats have a way of clarifying issues for the losing party and a number of Republicans have quickly figured out that support for some sort of immigration reform will be crucial to their party being competitive with Democrats over the next few election cycles. But conservative Republicans are already barking about the bipartisan proposal. Texas Representative Lamar Smith, long a leading Republican voice on immigration issues, told the Washington Post that the Senate proposal effectively would grant amnesty to millions, something he says “compounds the problem by encouraging more illegal immigration.”
In fact, the key to winning passage of any immigration bill down the road may be linking reform to border security efforts and a better system for tracking those already in the United States on visas. The devil will truly be in the details of whatever immigration plan gets worked out and there are plenty of smaller points out there that could still derail reform in Congress down the line.
The Republican-controlled House will be a particularly tough nut to crack on this and the only conceivable way for passage of a compromise bill is for enough moderate Republicans to join with the Democratic minority in the House to provide the margin of victory. But we are a long way off from that.
Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida, is one of the gang of eight senators pushing the bipartisan bill on immigration reform. Unlike last year when Rubio seemed hesitant to push for changes in immigration, this year he seems much more willing to step into the political spotlight.
There is great reward and risk for Rubio in this. He is already being talked up as a possible Republican presidential contender in 2016 after being considered on last year’s shortlist to be Mitt Romney’s vice presidential running mate. Rubio is uniquely positioned to reap benefits, both for himself and for his party as a leader in this effort. Rubio’s Cuban-American heritage already gives him entre to voters many Republicans have little hope of winning over. And by pushing the Republican Party to the center on immigration, he could get a lot of credit from activists hoping to make the party more competitive in presidential politics after losing the popular vote in five of the last six elections.
On the other hand, Rubio was elected to the Senate in Florida in 2010 with considerable help from Tea Party activists who might be troubled if he gets too far out in front on the immigration issue. He also might get heat from some as a “flip-flopper” after speaking out strongly earlier in his career against the notion of granting illegals anything even approaching amnesty. But I get the sense Rubio realizes the political winds have shifted a bit and that it is imperative the Republican Party find a way to be more competitive with Democrats in luring Hispanic support. Even if the effort fails in the short term, Rubio could position himself as more of a moderate on the issue, which might help him should he seek the presidency in 2016.
The Party of ‘No’ or ‘Slow’?
Immigration is just one of several issues that pose a test for Republicans this year. After winning a majority in the House of Representatives in 2010, many Republicans were convinced they were on track to making Barack Obama a one-term president in 2012. It didn’t happen and many of the Republican wounds were self-inflicted.
The question now is what, if anything, did the party learn from the defeats of 2012 and how can those lessons be applied to the upcoming congressional midterms in 2014, and the next presidential election two years after that. Do they simply try to block attempts at immigration reform and gun control? Or do they try to slow down momentum in hopes of either watering down the measures or see them stalled in Congress indefinitely?
Many Republicans realize they will be severely handicapped in future elections unless they find a way to appeal to more non-white voters, especially Hispanics and Asian-Americans. Coming to some sort of a compromise on immigration reform, at least theoretically, is one way of softening their image with those voters.
But other tests await, including gun control, which has taken on new urgency in the wake of the Newtown, Connecticut, tragedy in December. Yet another test revolves around the ongoing debates over the size of government and cutting government spending. One factor to keep in mind is that Republican control of the House gives them real leverage. While the Senate operates to some extent on the principle of consensus, the rules of the House give most of the power to the party that holds a majority of the 435 seats.
In addition, the latest round of redrawing congressional districts around the country based on the 2010 census has helped to cement Republican control of many of the districts now held by Republican members. Experts note that 20 years ago, about 160 of the 435 House districts were competitive, meaning that either party generally had a chance in any given election year. Now the experts say that less than 100 congressional districts are truly competitive, which gives the Republican Party a much more cohesive base of support, especially in the South and in the smaller population states of the West and Plains. And that means at least the potential of effective veto power in the House over a range of issues as along as Republicans stick together.