Republicans shift gears on immigration ahead of reform debate with Obama

House Republicans have reshuffled their troops ahead of a high-stakes clash with President Obama over immigration reform, leaving reform advocates with a new glimmer of hope that an elusive resolution to the thorny issue is within grasp this year. 

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For years, conservative opponents of comprehensive immigration reform have fought successfully against efforts to overhaul the system, particularly as it pertains to the fate of the nation's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants.

Yet even as the GOP conference has shifted to the right, there's a growing chorus of Republicans projecting a softer position on the "amnesty" issue — particularly since the party was walloped by Hispanic voters at the polls in November. And a number of those voices are in new positions of power that put them at the front lines of the coming immigration reform debate.

Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), for instance, is the new chairman of the House Judiciary Committee's Immigration subpanel. While Gowdy has not made immigration a focus of his two years on Capitol Hill — most often toeing the party line without fanfare — he recently rejected the notion that the government should round up and deport the millions of illegal immigrants living in the country.

"You want them knocking on your front door?" Gowdy told Gannett this month. "You want them going to elementary schools and rounding up the kids?"

Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas), the new vice chairman of the Immigration subcommittee, has also expressed a new openness to reform, announcing his support last month for a guest-worker program that drew immediate fire from conservative groups that consider it amnesty. 

"It’s time for Republicans to take the lead on immigration reform," Poe wrote in a Politico op-ed.

In another shift, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), who is among Congress's most fervent opponents of "amnesty" provisions, lost his leadership spot on the Immigration subcommittee this year, with both Gowdy and Poe moving ahead of him.

Lynn Tramonte, deputy director of America's Voice, a group that advocates for comprehensive immigration reform, said King's demotion is a clear sign that GOP leaders view his hardline position — and often controversial statements — as a political liability that undermines the party's effort to attract more Hispanic voters.

"He's getting pushed further and further down the chain," Tramonte said Thursday by phone. "The fact that King is not in a leadership position is significant."

Still another immigration hardliner, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), also has less power to control the debate this year. The chairman of the full Judiciary Committee for the last four years, Smith was replaced this Congress by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), whose background is in immigration law.

When Smith headed the committee, Tramonte said, everyone knew "he wasn't going to move anything beyond enforcement measures." With the new cast of characters in place, "it's an open question," she said.

Not everyone sees the new GOP power structure as an indication that broad reforms might be forthcoming. 

Rosemary Jenks, director of government relations at NumbersUSA, which advocates for tougher immigration laws, characterized Goodlatte as a "very solid, pro-enforcement" voice who picked "very solid, pro-enforcement" lawmakers to represent his Immigration subcommittee.

"There's not a chance the House will introduce or move a comprehensive bill," Jenks said Thursday in a phone interview. "Congress has tried comprehensive reform. It didn't work in 2007. It's not going to work this time around."

All the moving pieces have left some observers with more questions about the coming debate than answers. A House Democratic aide who follows the issue said lawmakers are largely waiting to see what the White House proposes. Adding to the uncertainty, Gowdy and some of the other players are still very new to the debate, the aide said.

"A lot of Republicans in the House who'll be working on this issue have never worked on it before," the aide said Thursday. "There's a lot of inexperience."

The issue of immigration reform has been a third rail of Washington politics for years, but November's elections — which saw more than 70 percent of Hispanic voters supporting President Obama — has created a new appetite for reform on Capitol Hill, as GOP leaders are scrambling to ensure that the Democrats' advantage with Latinos doesn't become a permanent one.

Obama has made immigration reform a top priority of 2013, and Congress is lining up behind that effort. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) has said he'll hold hearings on the issue in February. And Goodlatte's House panel has slated a hearing for early next month, according to a GOP aide briefed on the schedule.

“We are a nation of immigrants and our immigration system has contributed to the greatness of the United States," Goodlatte said Thursday in an email. "However, we are also a nation of laws. It is clear that our immigration system is in desperate need of repair and is not working as efficiently and fairly as it should be."

Fueling the push, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a rising star in the Republican Party, is advocating targeted immigration reforms that have already won the endorsement of conservative standard-bearer Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).

Sensing the shift in tone, Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), Congress's loudest immigrant-rights advocate, gave up his seat on the Financial Services Committee this year in favor of a temporary Judiciary Committee spot that will bring him to the center of the debate. 

The outspoken Democrat had predicted the Republicans "would get religion" after the election numbers came in, and he's scrambling to ensure Congress doesn't fritter away the rare political opportunity to enact sweeping reforms.

"Our economy needs to get this done immediately," Gutierrez told The Hill last month.

Not that anyone thinks reaching a bipartisan consensus will be easy. Indeed, one big sticking point seems to be that Obama and the Democrats want comprehensive reforms, while most Republicans favor a piecemeal approach. 

Highlighting another hurdle, Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho), a member of the House Immigration subcommittee who's positioning himself as a GOP point man on the issue, says he's opposed to any "amnesty" provisions for those now in the country illegally.

Still, in a statement that would hearten reform advocates, a Labrador spokesman said Thursday that, taken on the whole, the Tea Party favorite is much closer to Luis Gutierrez on immigration than he is to Lamar Smith.