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Despite Bipartisan Beginnings, Immigration Overhaul Could Splinter GOP

Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., are closer on the immigration issue than McCain is to many in his party. They were among the eight senators who announced the framework for a bipartisan immigration overhaul on Monday.MoreCloseclosemore
Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., are closer on the immigration issue than McCain is to many in his party. They were among the eight senators who announced the framework for a bipartisan immigration overhaul on Monday.

If President Obama wanted to pick the perfect wedge issue to split the Republican Party, he could hardly have improved on a comprehensive overhaul of the nation's immigration laws.

Not that he has an ulterior motive in advocating for action on Capitol Hill. But it works out the same way.

That was evident Monday, as conservatives reacted to the news that a bipartisan group of senators had agreed on a blueprint for comprehensive changes in immigration laws. The fissures among Republicans were popping up all over.

On one hand, you had Al Cardenas, leader of the American Conservative Union and a Cuban-American immigrant himself, welcoming the initiative:

"Congratulations to both sides of the aisle in forging a responsible framework today. Difficult days lay ahead in working out specifics on the legislation itself, but the Senate is off to a good start and I encourage the House to follow suit."

On the other, you had Republican Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, who referred to the framework as an "amnesty," one of the most detested words in the conservative lexicon.

"No one should be surprised that individuals who have supported amnesty in the past still support amnesty. When you legalize those who are in the country illegally, it costs taxpayers millions of dollars, costs American workers thousands of jobs and encourages more illegal immigration."

That, my friends, is a wedge issue, in 3-D.

The rifts in the Republican Party over a proposal that would give an estimated 11 million undocumented people a path to become legal Americans were reminiscent of the cleavages exposed in 2006 and 2007, the last time a major immigration overhaul was attempted.

Democrats, at least some of them, insist that it's not their aim to drive Republicans apart.

"We do not want immigration as a wedge issue," Sen. Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, said at a Capitol Hill news conference with a bipartisan group of Senate colleagues.

But for Obama and congressional Democrats, pushing for a comprehensive immigration overhaul is low risk, high reward. It fulfills a pledge the president and his party made in the 2012 general election.

If they succeed — still a big if — that could significantly boost the energy of an important part of the Democratic base heading into the 2014 midterm elections: Latinos who gave the president more than 70 percent of their support in November.

It would obviously be the kind of second-term achievement that would expand Obama's legacy and could enhance Vice President Biden's claim for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016.

For Republicans, however, the political dynamics are far more complicated and perilous. It's definitely high risk, with an uncertain reward.

GOP support for a bipartisan agreement would mesh with one of the supposed lessons of the 2012 election, that antagonizing Latino voters going forward is a dubious strategy if the goal is to win a larger share of the vote from that ever more important demographic. Many Latino voters were, after all, upset by Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney's talk of illegal immigrants "self-deporting."

That may help explain why Romney's running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, who is widely expected to compete for his party's 2016 presidential nomination, said he agrees with the pathway to citizenship laid out by Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a member of the bipartisan working group, and himself a likely presidential contender.

But many conservatives join Smith in opposing the prospect of supplying illegal immigrants with a way to become legal, even if it's an onerous path. For them it's rewarding lawbreakers, pure and simple. (It also doesn't help that most of the new citizens would — presumably — tilt Democratic, based on Hispanic political affiliations currently.)

What further compounds matters for many conservatives is the inclusion of Sen. John McCain of Arizona among the "Gang of Eight" senators who reached the framework. McCain was heavily involved in the 2006-2007 effort that triggered a backlash from conservatives. And as his party's 2008 presidential nominee, McCain did nearly as poorly as Romney in attracting Latino voters.

The Republican split on immigration only adds to the headaches facing House Speaker John Boehner, the Ohio Republican. The speaker, who didn't take a public position on the Senate plan Monday, has enough problems getting his House GOP conference to march in unison on issues on which Republicans roughly agree, like the need for fiscal discipline.

On immigration, he could really wind up getting buffeted by the turbulence, especially if he has to rely largely on Democrats to ultimately pass legislation.

Meanwhile, if the House Republicans wind up thwarting immigration overhaul as they did in 2006 — before they lost control of the House, only to regain control four years later — it would hand Democrats a potentially powerful political cudgel heading into the 2014 midterm elections.

Copyright NPR 2018.

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