GOP battles base on immigration

Greg Nash

House Republican leaders are facing a disconnect on immigration with their grassroots base.

Much of the GOP base sees Republican principles on immigration as granting amnesty to illegal immigrants because they would provide a legal basis for them to stay and work in the country. The grass roots erupted last week even before the principles were floated to rank-and-file members, with anger fueled by talk radio and conservative websites.

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GOP lawmakers who want to move forward say their leadership needs to do a better job of communicating, but the disconnect over the meaning of amnesty suggests their differences might be unbridgeable.

As Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and his deputies last week attempted to coax their conference to act on immigration, prominent conservatives were making a lot of noise.

Right-wing author and commentator Ann Coulter wrote that Republicans are committing political suicide. Bill Kristol of The Weekly Standard questioned why Republicans are moving forward on an issue that divides the party during an election year. And The Drudge Report posted a doctored photo of Boehner wearing a sombrero.

Rank-and-file lawmakers following last week’s three-day GOP retreat in Cambridge, Md. — where immigration was the featured discussion — stressed they did not make any decisions to move immigration reform this year.

Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) said sarcastically, “It’s kind of [conservative media] to criticize us for something we haven’t done yet ... which means we don’t have a plan yet, all people were talking about was ideas — so jumping to conclusions is premature.” 

Asked to comment on Coulter’s contention that the party is committing suicide, Bishop paused before responding, “We haven’t yet.”

Other GOP lawmakers waved their hands in frustration, noting that the conference simply “discussed” the contentious issue. 

“It was a conversation. Nothing more and nothing less ... there’s no agreement on anything. There’s nothing more to it, it was a draft, it was starting of a conversation,” Arizona GOP Rep. Paul Gosar told The Hill.

Some GOP lawmakers worry that the message will get muddled while popular conservative talk radio hosts and opinion leaders, including Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin, rip the GOP conference for broaching the lightning rod issue. More than a few Republicans are worried about how immigration will play in their primaries.

Rep. Marlin Stutzman acknowledged that the conservative media is “going to have an influence” on the base. But he added that that his leaders have not articulated their message clearly. 

“It’s because we are talking about it the wrong way. There is no amnesty. That should be the first line. We are not for amnesty, we are for controlling the border,” the Indiana Republican lawmaker said. 

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), a vocal critic of the Senate-passed immigration bill, hosted a breakfast last Wednesday morning with Sean Hannity of Fox News.

King said that Hannity’s appearance at a Conservative Opportunity Society breakfast “energized a lot of conservatives” to speak out against immigration reform.

“I haven’t worked to orchestrate a message through the conservative talk show people other than having Sean speak ... strategically the effort was to get as many people informed as possible in a low-key way,” King added.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) last year engaged with conservative media critics who lambasted the immigration reform he helped write. He appeared on their shows to defend his efforts, but his political stock took a huge hit.

Republican leaders have said they will never conference with the Senate-passed bill and won’t embrace its provisions on setting up a pathway to citizenship. Regardless, Boehner’s effort to nudge his conference is very difficult. In 2010, only eight House Republicans supported the DREAM Act, a scaled-down version of comprehensive immigration reform.

A number of GOP lawmakers who want to fix immigration questioned why they are even discussing the matter, given their distrust of President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

“There’s not a lot of faith in our partners in the Senate or the White House in coming up with a conclusion, and that is the biggest impediment to actually coming up with anything that’s long range. We don’t have a lot of trust in either the Senate or the president,” Bishop said. 

By and large, Republicans want to keep the public’s focus on the economy and the problems plaguing ObamaCare.

Immigration reform ranked fourth on a list of priorities, according to recent polling conducted by Quinnipiac University. 

House GOP leaders seemed to indicate the uphill battle within their conference on the Sunday morning talk shows when neither Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) nor Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) committed to an immigration vote on the House floor in 2014.

Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University, said that while GOP leaders are looking to pick up support from Hispanics and Asians ahead of the presidential election in 2016, many Republican lawmakers are focused on retaining control of the House this year and possibly gaining a majority in the Senate.    

“[GOP leaders] have the long view in mind that it is impossible to see the Republican Party as a presidential majority party if it doesn’t deal with immigration ... both Hispanics and Asians focus on immigration and went 71 and 73 percent Democrat for the Obama reelection, whereas most of the base of the Republican Party and a good chunk of the Republican Conference is not looking at 2016. They are looking at 2014 and say we are on a very positive path” without tackling immigration reform.