Rep. Paul Ryan maneuvers for position ahead of immigration-reform fight

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) is jockeying for position on immigration reform. 

Ryan, the 2012 Republican vice presidential nominee and budget guru of the GOP, has kept a low profile since the November elections.

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But Ryan has quietly been discussing comprehensive immigration reform with Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), one of the most outspoken proponents of changing the nation’s immigration laws. The Wisconsin Republican has also huddled with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a potential 2016 White House rival who is seen as the GOP’s leading voice on the issue.

Ryan this week endorsed Rubio’s plan — a clear sign that he is not planning to be on the sidelines during the 2013 debate.

University of Oregon political science Professor Daniel Tichenor stated, “It’s a safe bet that Rubio will be at center stage on immigration reform in coming months, and Ryan does not want to be outflanked or to surrender the spotlight so easily.”

Aides close to Ryan and Gutierrez say the Budget Committee chairman intends to continue to be involved in immigration reform talks as Congress moves closer to passing a comprehensive bill. 

Ryan’s participation in the early negotiations began in December when, while at the gym, he recommended to Gutierrez that the Illinois congressman reach out to Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho), according to Gutierrez and congressional aides. 

Labrador is a Tea Party favorite who is pushing his party to embrace immigration reform.

Rubio held a wide-ranging discussion with Ryan last month on the likely major bills of the 113th Congress. That conversation, according to a Ryan aide, included immigration. 

“They both had a frank conversation as peers and decided the time was now to work and move,” the aide said. 

There are no plans for Ryan to meet with Gutierrez anytime soon, but the two House members plan to keep talking, according to staffers for the two congressmen.

“The answer is yes, they plan to keep talking,” according to one of the aides. 

Gutierrez recently left the House Financial Services Committee to work on immigration reform as a member of the relevant Judiciary subcommittee.

Ryan is quick to cite his support for a comprehensive immigration reform bill sponsored by Gutierrez and then-Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) in 2005, which authorizes non-immigrant status to undocumented aliens in the U.S. if they pay a fine and meet certain criteria. 

It is apparent that Ryan is seeking to put some distance between his position and that of his 2012 running mate, Mitt Romney. During the GOP primary, Romney veered to the right and advocated “self-deportation” of illegal immigrants.

That position was mocked by both Democrats and Republicans.

“I’ve had a pretty consistent record on the issue,” Ryan said in a brief interview on Tuesday.

Indeed, the House Budget Committee chairman has been involved in a number of bipartisan immigration reform bills in 2008 and 2009.

But he has also attracted criticism from immigration reform activists. In 2005, he voted for a border-security bill sponsored by Rep. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) that advocates lambasted. Ryan also voted against the DREAM Act, which Democratic leaders brought to the House floor at the end of 2010. 

Regardless, there is no daylight between Ryan and Rubio on immigration.

“Sen. Rubio is exactly right on the need to fix our broken immigration system,” Ryan wrote on his Facebook page on Monday. “I support the principles he’s outlined: modernization of our immigration laws; stronger security to curb illegal immigration; and respect for the rule of law in addressing the complex challenge of the undocumented population.”

Backing from Ryan is a valuable asset for any immigration reform plan, because the eight-term lawmaker is popular within the House Republican Conference and with the GOP base. Gutierrez said Ryan is capable of bringing a lot of Republican votes.

“He’s going to be critical and essential,” Gutierrez told The Hill on Wednesday.

Gutierrez, who has not been shy in criticizing President Obama’s broken promises on immigration during his first term, stressed that Ryan’s involvement doesn’t pose a threat to Rubio. 

University of Dayton political scientist Jamie Longazel, who specializes in immigration law and politics, isn’t shocked that Ryan is weighing in.

“I think because he’s in a leadership position it’s not surprising to see him taking the lead as the Republican Party tries to change his image on immigration,” Longazel said. “Immigration at its core is about money; it’s about economics.”

Ryan’s website says he “does not support amnesty for the millions of illegal immigrants already living in the United States.” But in backing Rubio’s proposal, Ryan supports a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants, albeit a more conservative one than Democrats favor.

While Ryan is eager to make a quick defense of his immigration record, he’s coy about discussing progress on the latest negotiations. When asked when his next meetings with other legislators would happen, Ryan would only say, “You’ll see.”

Immigration experts read Ryan’s engagement as a sign that Republicans are paying more attention to Latinos.

“They finally appreciate that the GOP cannot be a viable national party with a competitive future without changing how Latino and Asian voters perceive their brand,” Tichenor said. “And his potential involvement on immigration reform not only broadens his policy portfolio, but also sets him up as one of the leaders who pushed the Republican Party to broaden its tent.”



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