Momentum for immigration reform hit wall in Washington after Senate passage
Local and national politics may call for different things for Republicans in immigration debate
Obama signaled potential opening to get something through as window for action gets smaller
Some Republicans less optimistic even though many believe reform needed to boost their prospects
Brad Bailey, a Texas restaurateur and city councilman in the Houston suburb of Nassau Bay, is a Republican.
But in the early stages of the 2012 presidential campaign, when Mitt Romney was telling the country that “self-deportation” was a reasonable solution to the problem of 11 million illegal immigrants living the United States, it became difficult for Bailey not to view politics through the eyes of his Hispanic employees, who were mortified at the Republican Party’s tone-deaf language on immigration policy.
“Our party had been hijacked by a vocal minority,” he began telling people at the time.
Before the campaign was even over, Bailey launched something called “The Texas Immigration Solution” to lobby Republicans on the need for reform and to “sensitize conservatives about the rhetoric on immigration.”
With financial backing from his neighbor, the Republican mega-donor Bob Perry, a fervent supporter of immigration reform, the group got off to an auspicious start.
In 2012, Bailey helped push activists in the Texas Republican Party to soften the immigration language in its official platform, adding a plank calling for a temporary guest worker program.
And after President Barack Obama won Hispanic voters by a nearly 3-1 margin, a demographic drubbing that startled GOP tacticians everywhere, Bailey embarked on a public relations blitz that landed his message in national outlets like NPR, The Huffington Post, Politico and RedState.com.
By the time the Senate took up the issue in the spring, comprehensive immigration reform finally seemed to have momentum.
A brick wall
With an assist from Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a tea party aligned Cuban-American, the Senate passed a sweeping bill that would create a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants, raise the cap on visas for high-skilled workers, and boost security along the U.S.-Mexico border.
But the legislation hit a brick wall in the Republican-controlled House, where Speaker John Boehner, hamstrung by a bloc of unruly conservatives in his caucus, has refused to bring the comprehensive bill up for a vote, instead urging Congress to pass a series of smaller fixes.
An immigration stalemate in the House, a graveyard for Obama’s legislative agenda since Republicans re-captured the chamber in 2010, was predictable.
But here’s what almost no one saw coming: a late-summer diplomatic chess match over whether to launch missile strikes against Syria that chewed up valuable calendar time, and now, the looming threat of a government shutdown over a budget gambit – surprisingly endorsed this week by House GOP leadership – that would defund the president’s health care reform law. After that, another high-stakes showdown over raising the country’s debt ceiling is on the docket.
Today, time is running out to pass immigration reform.
Republicans like Bailey who lie awake at night fretting about their party’s weak standing among Hispanic voters are worried that nothing will happen before the 2014 elections suck up the nation’s political oxygen.
“The calendar just keeps getting more stuff put on it,” said Bailey, who saw his group’s funding dry up after Perry, his top financial backer, died in April. “Kicking the can down the road does no good. One day I might be optimistic, but the next I’m kind of pessimistic.”
Going back to the failed 2005 and 2007 overhaul efforts by then-President George W. Bush, the GOP’s stasis on immigration reform has crystallized the party’s existential dilemma.
Torn between its hard-line right flank and the urgent need to boost its standing among general election voters and one of the country’s fastest-growing voting blocs, Republicans have been caught in what Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina calls “a demographic death spiral” as Democrats continue to rack up huge margins among Hispanic voters at the polls.
Among the GOP’s pragmatic set, there are mounting fears that Republicans, consumed with budget battles and procedural wars in do-nothing Washington, will have little to say to Hispanic voters by the time the 2016 presidential race arrives.
“We need to find solutions to these problems, not just continue to find the problems in every possible solution, thereby supporting nothing and ensuring the status quo remains the same,” said Rich Beeson, the political director for Romney’s presidential campaign.
Beeson lives in Colorado, a state where Obama won a stunning 75% of Hispanic voters.
“This is one area where most people expect both parties to come together and find a solution, not stand in the corner and shout at each other,” Beeson said.
Matt David, a Republican operative who managed former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman’s unsuccessful Republican presidential bid, said “we can’t make gains with Hispanics subliminally; we have to demonstrate publicly that we will fight for them.”
“Democrats will make immigration an issue, and we should welcome it, fight for it, and denounce anyone in our party who doesn’t support it,” David said.
After Romney’s loss, Republican leaders were eager to recover precious ground lost among Hispanic voters in the last two presidential elections, which saw Republican candidates staking out hard line stands on border security and deportation during the primaries in an appeal to the party’s activist base.
A post-election autopsy report written by a Republican National Committee task force called on GOP leaders to “embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform” or risk becoming a permanently-hobbled party ruled by an aging, white constituency.
Following last November’s election, fielding phone calls in his Richmond-area district, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia listened to countless members of his caucus vent about the need to fix the immigration system in a bid to save the party.
“Very quickly we learned that for a lot of our members, we have to do something about immigration,” said a House Republican aide, granted anonymity to speak candidly about the state of immigration reform in the GOP caucus. “Nine months later, and we haven’t yet. I think while we still want to do something, that sense of urgency is gone.”
Complicating matters, this aide said, are competing imperatives of congressional elections and national ones. In both Democratic and Republican-leaning House districts, the hot political battles are most often waged in primaries rather than general elections. With gerrymandered districts drawn to favor one party or another, self-preservation in Congress increasingly hinges on appealing to the base, general election voters be damned.
“Some of our members are saying, ‘I realize it’s a national problem, but it’s not my problem because my district’s not Hispanic,’” the House aide said.
Though the window to pass reform is shrinking by the day, some GOP congressional aides are quietly working with the House Judiciary Committee to draft several smaller pieces of legislation that could “have an opportunity or a chance” to see a vote by late October, said another Republican aide involved in the process.
Pieces of legislation addressing border security, agricultural workers, employment verification, visas for high and low-skilled workers, and a path to citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants could all emerge from the Judiciary Committee and be brought to a full vote in the House, according to the aide said.
“There’s a lot going on that people don’t see,” the aide said.
House negotiations were dealt a blow on Friday, however, when two Texas Republicans, Reps. John Carter and Sam Johnson, dropped out of a bipartisan working group on immigration, citing doubts about Obama’s willingness to enforce any new laws.
A possible opening
Obama signaled this week that he would be open to what Washington is calling “a piecemeal approach” to immigration reform rather than the comprehensive bill that emerged from the Senate, as long as the proposals are in line with the spirit of what the White House hopes to achieve.
New York Sen. Charles Schumer, one of Democrats who drafted the Senate bill, also said in August he would be open to the House passing a series of smaller bills and then potentially bundling them together in conference, if both parties agree to.
The biggest point of contention between Republicans and Democrats remains a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants, a move favored by Democrats but long derided as “amnesty” by many conservative Republicans.
Other supporters of a comprehensive immigration overhaul are now open to a smaller approach that at least brings the House and Senate together in conference to hash out their differences before time runs out on the legislative calendar.
“The House doesn’t have to pass everything to get it into conference. The end goal is to get something out of the House that pushes this into conference,” said John Feinblatt, a policy adviser to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Bloomberg is co-chair of the Partnership for a New American Economy, a coalition of business and political leaders pressing for immigration changes this year.
“There is a window to do it,” Feinblatt said. “You could do it after the debt ceiling. You could have a path to do it between then and Thanksgiving.”
Publicly at least, Republican legislators in Washington are not projecting the same air of optimism.
Rubio, a likely candidate for his party’s presidential nomination in 2016, told the conservative website Newsmax this week that the immigration issue is on the backburner.
“The budget fights are important and Obamacare is incredibly important,” he said. “The national debt and the debt limit is going to be incredibly important. Those issues are time sensitive. Immigration’s a big issue but these issues are bigger and that’s why the focus is on those issues right now.”
Idaho Rep. Raul Labrador, a native of Puerto Rico and an Republican opponent of the comprehensive Senate bill, made a blunter admission to Univision earlier this month when he said immigration reform might not even be on the table until 2015 – after next year’s midterm elections and in the heat of Republican presidential primary season.
“A lot of us thought that the debate was going to be in October, but now, with the problems that we’re having internationally and also here in this country, I don’t see how we’re going to be able to have this debate until November,” Labrador said. “And I really don’t know if it will be possible to do it in November.”
If Republicans fail to clean up their reputation with Hispanics through policy fixes, the party will be left to make adjustments in their tone and rhetoric – a project complicated by conservatives like Iowa Rep. Steve King who have a knack for making inflammatory statements that quickly go viral on cable and the Internet.
In July, King said that for every child of an illegal immigrant who is a valedictorian, “there’s another 100 out there who weigh 130 pounds and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.”
Party leaders were not amused.
“It’s not just policy or whether there’s action or inaction, it’s also whether the Republican Party is viewed as welcoming to Hispanic citizens or hostile to Hispanic citizens,” said Steve Munisteri, the chairman of the Texas Republican Party who has five full-time Hispanic outreach directors working on staff. “It’s hard to fake people out on sincerity. If the national party doesn’t roll out the welcome mat, were going to have the door slammed in our face.”