GOP in House leaves immigration bill in doubt

Despite solid Senate support for the bill, House leadership isn't ready to budge

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WASHINGTON -- With the Senate days away from passing the most significant immigration legislation in a generation, House Republicans say they feel no pressure to act quickly on a similar measure, leaving the fate of the bill very much in doubt despite solid bipartisan Senate support.

"We have a minority of the minority in the Senate voting for this bill," said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., referring to the 15 or so Republicans expected to back the Senate measure. "That's not going to put a lot of pressure on the majority of the majority in the House."

Two senior House Republican leadership aides were more blunt when speaking privately: Speaker John Boehner of Ohio has no intention of angering conservative voters and jeopardizing the House Republican majority in 2014 in the interest of courting Hispanic voters on behalf of a 2016 Republican presidential nominee who does not yet exist.

If anything, the politics of a gerrymandered House where Republican lawmakers have much more to fear politically from the right than from the left could push many Republicans to oppose a conservative alternative to the Senate's plan.

Even advocates of a comprehensive immigration bill that includes a pathway to legalization for undocumented immigrants now in the country say that Senate passage as early as Friday would not change House sentiment quickly.

"The House is not going to get logrolled by the Senate," said Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who lost his bid to be vice president last year in part because of the Republican Party's abysmal showing with immigrant voters. "We'll have a more methodical, patient way of doing this."

The outcome of Monday's crucial vote in the Senate on added border security provided evidence of the difficulty of getting an immigration measure produced in the Democratic-controlled Senate through the Republican-held House. All of the Senate's Republican leadership opposed the border plan. States represented by the 15 Senate Republicans who backed the proposal have 56 Republican House members and senators from two of the states -- South Carolina and Mississippi -- split. The states represented by 30 Republican senators who opposed the border plan or indicated they would -- a good gauge of local political sentiment -- have 123 Republican members of the House.

"Can we pass a House bill? It's a very open question," said Rep. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, a leading voice among a shrinking group of moderate Republicans.

For Republicans, the stakes are high and the crosscurrents are strong. Advocates of the Senate bill say the future of the national Republican Party could rest on how this issue plays out. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who helped write the measure, said Tuesday that "the passion level" among Hispanic voters on the immigration issue "is as high as on any issue I've observed."

"If we can't grow our numbers, particularly among Hispanics, it's pretty hard to win the White House in 2016," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., another of the bill's authors. "Don't get me wrong. Conservatism sells, and after eight years of Obama, people will be looking around for someone new. But it's hard to sell your economic agenda if they think you're going to deport their grandmother."

On the other hand, a vote for legislation like the Senate bill could hold real peril for House Republicans, whose solidly Republican districts reward politicians who take the most conservative positions on issues. A new poll by National Journal, a magazine, found that nearly half of Republican voters, 49 percent, said a lawmaker who backs legislation offering a pathway to citizenship would lose their support. Thirty percent said it would make no difference. Only 15 percent said such a voter would make them more likely to back their incumbent.

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