Republicans Remain Divided
Immigrant groups around the country are closely watching the ongoing debate over immigration reform in the U.S. Senate. So are the political pundits. Because what happens in the Senate over the next few weeks could have a big impact on the future political prospects for the Republican Party.
I’m starting to detect some doubts among mainstream Republicans that an immigration bill will in the end become law. Republican strategist Ed Rogers, writing in the Washington Post, says the debate over immigration has left the party in a “no-win situation.” Rogers argues that most Senate Republicans will oppose the current bill because it won’t be deemed tough enough on securing U.S. borders. So even though something will probably emerge from the Senate, primarily with Democratic support, it will have virtually no chance in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. So Republicans will get little credit for anything that comes out of the Senate and if the House fails to act in any significant way, Republicans will once again get pounded by the media and pro-immigration groups for blocking meaningful reform.
Avoiding the ‘Death Spiral’
South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham is warning his fellow Republicans that if they don’t pass some form of immigration reform, his party will enter “a demographic death spiral” because of an inability to attract many Hispanic supporters. President Barack Obama won 71 percent of the Hispanic vote last November and 73 percent of Asian-Americans voters, huge numbers that helped make up for the president losing the white vote to Mitt Romney.
Graham and other Republicans worried about immigration believe that if the party is blamed for sinking immigration reform this time around they will pay an enormous price at the polls for years to come, especially during presidential election years. Former Republican governors Jeb Bush of Florida and Haley Barbour of Mississippi have warned that improving the party’s image among Hispanic voters is crucial to making Republicans competitive in future elections.
House as Roadblock
Even if something on immigration does pass the Senate, it’s hard to see how the House will follow suit with anything approaching a similar bill. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte told USA Today that any House bill would have to win a sizable majority of Republican votes in the House and not rely on cobbling together a majority of Democrats and some less conservative Republicans.
But it’s unclear what House Speaker John Boehner will do in the end. He reportedly wants some form of an immigration bill to keep the wolves at bay who are trying to depict the Republican Party as anti-immigration. The question is will Boehner eventually embark on a track in the House where the only type of legislation that is capable of passing is one that draws virtually all Democrats and a handful of Republicans?
Conservatives say the main sticking point is border security. They fear that no matter what the Senate does, whatever the House approves in terms of stringent border security will largely be ignored or watered down by the Senate in any eventual conference committee negotiation. So a lot of House conservatives are wary of whatever comes out of the Senate.
Democrats on the Spot
You could also have a situation where Democrats continue to compromise in the Senate to accommodate Republican concerns over border security to the point where they anger some immigrant groups that are essential to Democratic get-out-the-vote efforts. Then even if a compromise bill eventually passes the Senate, it goes nowhere in the House, leaving both sides with a bad aftertaste. And remember, a number of Hispanic political activists are counting on the White House and Democratic congressional leaders to make reform a reality this year. Democrats don’t want to head into the 2014 election cycle with large numbers of them disappointed just when they need them for organizing and fundraising.
Of course if the immigration effort in Congress fails this year, you can be sure Democrats will use it as an issue in next year’s midterm congressional elections, where they are already seen at a bit of a disadvantage. Democrats are defending many more seats than Republicans in the Senate, and the recent political scandals touching the Obama White House likely will depress Democratic turnout next year and could fire up conservatives and their Tea Party base.
The post-election tensions continue to surface within the Republican Party and immigration remains a central reason why. Some of the differences played out at the recent Faith and Freedom Coalition conference in Washington where scores of social conservatives met to discuss the future of their movement. The conference drew a variety of speakers from various wings of the Republican Party, from Jeb Bush to Rand Paul to Sarah Palin. Bush is among those appealing to the party to support some form of immigration reform, while some of the hardliners like Palin want to make any changes contingent on border security improvement. Palin, in fact, took issue with some of Bush’s comments on immigration and she loves to grouse about the “old boy’s network” that she believes has led the Republican Party down the path of moderation and sure defeat in recent years.
Of course there are questions about Palin too. What exactly is her role in the party now? Sometimes she comes off like a warm up act before a game show, someone aiming to rile up an audience with anti-Obama barbs, all the while reminding them of why she is not quite ready for primetime. I guess her role will be guest speaker for the foreseeable future, willing to address any conservative group for a price until the party faithful get tired of her and move on. Some already have — to up and coming heroes of the right like Senator Ted Cruz of Texas.
Play Christie for Me
One prominent no-show at the Faith and Freedom Coalition conference was New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Some of the attendees reportedly were put off by the fact that Christie was in Chicago appearing with former President Bill Clinton at a meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative. The Associated Press quoted one conservative attendee disappointed that Christie skipped the event as saying, “People who neglect us are sorry.”
Christie may find out how sorry if he enters the Iowa caucuses in 2016, the first stop on the road to the Republican Party’s presidential nomination. Christie has done a lot of late to make himself more appealing to moderate voters, from his appearance with Clinton to his decision to hold a special Senate election in New Jersey later this year to complete the Senate term of the late Frank Lautenberg.
But before Christie can use his charms on moderate and independent voters, he will have to win the GOP nomination and that means competing in conservative bastions like Iowa and South Carolina. Both Mitt Romney and John McCain, the last two Republican nominees, understood this and managed to weather the conservative gauntlet before they got the chance to make their case to independent voters in the general election.
The other wild card for 2016 appears to be Florida Senator Mario Rubio. Rubio remains a key player in the immigration debate in the Senate, but lately seems to be hewing back toward the conservative side of things, perhaps wary of alienating his Republican base in the 2016 primaries by getting out too far on the issue of immigration and a path to citizenship. Rubio’s tightrope walk is likely to only get more complicated in the weeks ahead as the Senate slowly makes progress on immigration, with conservatives like Alabama’s Jeff Sessions eager to use any tactic to slow down and eventually kill the bill outright.