By Mike Lillis and Jordy Yager - 06/19/12 12:24 AM EDT
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) on Monday dropped his plan to push a DREAM Act through Congress before the election — the latest sign of the GOP’s struggle to counter President Obama’s move to stop deporting younger illegal immigrants.
Obama’s decision, which some Republican strategists were describing as a deft political move, highlights the dilemma facing Republican leaders, including presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
Republicans are seeking ways to appeal to Latino voters ahead of November, but want to avoid alienating conservatives who think all illegal immigrants have broken the law and should be deported.
“From a political standpoint, you almost have to give the White House credit — they really narrowly focused this thing in such a way that it did box Republicans in a little bit,” he added.
The move also might have downgraded Rubio’s chance of becoming Romney’s vice presidential pick by forcing Republicans to play defense on immigration. Picking Rubio as his running mate would highlight the issue of immigration and deportations, where Romney could be disadvantaged, instead of the economy.
As a result, Obama’s play for Hispanic voters might have boosted the vice presidential prospects of Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.).
Rubio, who had vowed to introduce a version of the DREAM Act this summer as a high-profile Republican effort to woo Latino voters, suggested Monday that Obama’s move stole the GOP’s thunder.
“People are going to say to me, ‘Why are we going to need to do anything on this now? It has been dealt with. We can wait until after the election,’ ” the Cuban-American freshman senator told The Wall Street Journal. “And it is going to be hard to argue against that.”
Republican leaders in Congress have reacted to Obama’s announcement with caution.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who had initially declined to comment, weighed in Monday to criticize the unilateral nature of Obama’s move — but not the policy itself.
Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, canceled a Monday press conference on the issue.
And despite charges from conservative groups and some rank-and-file Republicans that the new rule will reward lawbreakers and steal jobs from U.S. citizens, GOP leaders in the lower chamber — who have been relentless in their criticisms of Obama on just about every issue to come to the fore this year — have so far held their tongues.
The office of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) did not respond Monday to requests for comment, and the office of House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) was almost as quiet.
“He hasn’t said anything at this point,” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said Monday in an email.
House Republicans close to Romney have also clammed up about the new immigration rules — among the most controversial domestic policies of Obama’s White House tenure.
A spokesman for Rep. Jason Chaffetz — a typically outspoken Utah Republican who won his seat in part by hammering his opponent for supporting “amnesty” for undocumented immigrants — declined to comment on any aspect of the issue Monday. And a spokeswoman for Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), Romney’s official Capitol Hill liaison, did not return a request for comment.
Several GOP strategists said Republican leaders are staying silent largely because Obama’s move has stuck them in an extremely tricky spot and they’re taking their time to craft a smart, thought-out response.
Mackowiak and another GOP strategist who did not want to be identified said they suspect that House leaders are actively meeting with each other behind the scenes — as well as with staff from Romney and the Republican National Committee — to discuss which arguments against Obama’s move will have the most traction with voters on both a district and national level.
“It takes a little while to analyze the situation and figure out which arguments have the most resonance and see how the policy will work,” said Mackowiak.
Unveiled Friday by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the new rules will allow qualifying illegal immigrants who were brought to the country as children to remain and work without being targeted for deportation. The policy does not go as far as the DREAM Act that passed the House in 2010, which would create an eventual route to citizenship. But immigrant-rights advocates and Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill were quick to hail the move as a long-overdue step in the direction of a saner immigration strategy.
“It frees up law enforcement resources to focus on people who actually threaten public safety and national security,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said on the chamber floor Monday. “And it removes the specter of deportation that has hovered over deserving young men and women.”
The immigration issue has put Romney in a pickle. The former Massachusetts governor tacked hard to the right against illegal immigrants during the hotly contested GOP primary, but has since softened that position in an effort to appeal to Hispanic voters. In a move that’s sure to agitate conservatives, Romney over the weekend dodged questions about whether he, if elected, would repeal Obama’s new rules.
Upping the pressure on Republicans, a poll conducted by Latino Decisions-America’s Voice over the weekend found that Hispanic voters in five key swing states are more energized about Obama in the wake of his more lenient deportation rules. In Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Nevada and Virginia, 49 percent of Latino voters said the policy made them more enthusiastic about Obama, the poll found, compared to just 14 percent who were less so.