Immigration endangers the GOP

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Republicans have an opportunity for a get-out-of-jail moment with the fastest-growing slice of the electorate, Hispanics.

An immigration bill is likely to pass the Senate by the end of the month. The size and shape of the measure and the tone of the debate will be framed by Republicans in the next 10 days.

That may have a small effect on recalcitrant House Republicans. It will have a larger impact on reinforcing or modifying the hostility of Hispanics to Republicans. Party leaders don't expect to win the Hispanic vote -- they've put themselves in such a hole that it may take a generation or two to do that -- but to clear the deck and begin a conversation with these voters on other issues.

There are three Republican blocs to watch in the Senate this week and next:

The presidential aspirants

Marco Rubio of Florida is an architect of the bill before the Senate and is simultaneously trying to assuage the party's right-wing base. This balancing act must keep him awake at night. He had been pulling it off until last week, when he kept playing games that have infuriated John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, his Republican partners on the measure.

Whatever the rhetoric and however he votes on some amendments, Sen. Rubio still is likely to support the bill in the end.

That won't be the case with Sens. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz. Sen. Paul, the freshman Kentucky conservative libertarian, does remarkably well in some of the hypothetical polls on the 2016 race. He's trying to carve out a role as a bridge with House Republicans on immigration. That won't work; it suggests he won't want to make a big deal of the issue.

Sen. Cruz, a Texas freshman who is the most natural Tea Party candidate for 2016, has no such inhibitions and seems to relish making his fellow Cuban-American, Sen. Rubio, squirm. He has called the path to citizenship -- for Hispanics, the sine qua non element of any measure -- "the most divisive aspect" of the legislation and says he is proud to be called "Obamaphobic."

Governing lawmakers

In the Senate, liberal-moderate Republicans are dinosaurs. There are, however, as many as a dozen Republicans who are periodically interested in bipartisan consensus and want to support an immigration bill. These include Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska; Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee; Rob Portman of Ohio; Dean Heller of Nevada and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire.

This group generally is sensitive to finding compromises that aren't deal killers for Hispanics and that can win broader Republican support.

"We're not there, but I think we can find the sweet spot," says Sen. Corker, declaring that he very much wants to vote for the legislation. Now the important negotiations are over a tougher border-security measure that, unlike the proposal by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, wouldn't impede the creation of a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who already are in the United States.

A mischievous Rubio proposal would require immigrants to be proficient in English before becoming citizens. Sen. Graham, noting a list of criteria for citizenship that includes paying back-taxes, learning English, understanding civics and keeping a job, said, "Hell, half my family wouldn't qualify."

Only a handful of Democrats will defect. If these Republican senators hold and generally back a middle ground on votes over the next week or so, the bill will muster the necessary 60 votes, even in the unlikely event Sen. Rubio peels off.

Conservatives

Immigration reform appeals to some on the right such as Arizona freshman Sen. Jeff Flake and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. If supporters can get an additional half-dozen staunch Senate conservatives -- such as Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, John Hoeven of North Dakota, Georgia's Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson or Utah's Orrin Hatch -- they could approach 70 votes on final passage and create momentum as the measure moves to the House.

Sen. Hatch, a consummate deal-maker before the Tea Party made him fear for his political life in his re-election bid last year, backed the bill in committee after winning concessions to bring in more high-technology workers. Now he's part of a group that is trying to restrict public benefits for immigrants with ideas that are harsher than most Democrats can accept.

When the bill passes the Senate it will put enormous pressure -- more than most now realize -- on House Republicans. Speaker John Boehner, Rep. Ryan and possibly the House whip, Kevin McCarthy, whose California district is one-third Hispanic, want to pass legislation that's acceptable to the Hispanic community. A large majority of the House Republican caucus doesn't.

Conservatives insist on applying the so-called "Hastert rule," which allows consideration only of bills that have a majority of the Republican caucus.

If this is irreconcilable, here is a prediction, based more on instinct than reporting: Rep. Boehner, if necessary, will sacrifice his speakership instead of being party to the death of immigration reform. The Ohio Republican realizes that, even though it may not much affect next year's congressional elections, his party can't continue to lose 70 percent of the Hispanic vote and be competitive nationally.

opinion_commentary

Albert R. Hunt is a columnist for Bloomberg View.


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