By Cameron Joseph - 11/10/12 11:00 AM EST
A war has opened within the GOP over whether to embrace immigration reform in the wake of President Obama’s thumping of Mitt Romney among Hispanic voters.
Pundit Charles Krauthammer wrote Friday that Hispanics should be a natural GOP constituency, which means increasing border security while giving amnesty to those already in the United States illegally.
“Yes amnesty. Use the word. Shock and awe — full legal normalization (just short of citizenship) in return for full border enforcement,” he wrote.
The comments from Boehner and other Republicans suggesting movement on immigration reform reflect broad fears within the party that it is cutting itself off from the fast-growing constituency.
Warning signs for Republicans in terms of its future with Hispanic voters could be found not only in the election’s results but in exit polls that found Romney tied Obama even among Cuban Americans in Florida, who have traditionally been a strong GOP constituency.
But comments from rank-and-file Republicans and Rush Limbaugh — the only conservative talker with more listeners than Hannity —reflected the continued deep divisions in the GOP over how to handle immigration.
Rep. John Fleming (R-La.) expressed concern Boehner “is getting ahead of House Republicans” on the issue.
“There’s been zero discussion of this issue within the conference, and I’m urging the Speaker to talk with House Republicans before making pledges on the national news,” he said in a statement released Friday.
Limbaugh played “Feliz Navidad” on his show Friday and argued Hispanics are moving to Democrats not because of immigration but because of the party’s positions on taxes and welfare. Allowing those in the United States illegally to stay wouldn’t help the party, he argued.
“You can't beat Santa Claus with amnesty,” tweeted Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), referencing Limbaugh’s description of Obama as Santa Claus and Democrats as the “party of free stuff.”
The fight within the party is likely to play out further next week when lawmakers return to Washington for the lame-duck session.
American Conservative Union President Al Cardenas said the fight was necessary, both politically and for good policy.
“There will be a number of outspoken people on the subject but they have to have a plan of their own, conservatives cannot advocate the status quo, it's indefensible,” he said. “For conservatives to say they're not for comprehensive immigration reform is unsustainable.”
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GOP pollster Leslie Sanchez said the political battle is necessary for Republicans not to lose Hispanics permanently.
“As Republicans we have fixed ideas in our minds about what immigration reform is. There's a good healthy balance and the clock is ticking politically on this,” she said.
The difficulty for House Republicans is that many come from heavily white districts and face a bigger threat from primary challenges than in the general election. Embracing comprehensive immigration reform could mean risking primary defeat.
The last serious push for immigration reform came from the Bush administration in 2006. While the plan was opposed by many Democrats, the Republican White House also ran into opposition from border hawks it its own party led by former Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.).
Their cause was taken up by conservative pundits on talk radio and Fox News, and in the years since Tea Party opposition to immigration reform has intensified conservative ire against amnesty.
This week’s election and Hannity’s reaction, however, are a sign this dynamic may be changing.
Fox News owner Rupert Murdoch, who criticized Romney throughout the campaign for his hard right tack on immigration, tweeted that the U.S. “must sweeping, generous immigration reform.”
Hannity said on his radio show that he’s “evolved” on the issue and now supports a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff (R), a pro-amnesty Republican, decried his fellow Republicans’ decision to “pander to what they thought was the base of the party — the loud, shrill anti-immigration voices out there.”
“In order to move forward as a party and a nation on this critical issue we need to reject the extreme right-wing partisan rantings of the Joe Arpaios and Kris Kobachs who do not represent the majority of the Republican Party,” he said.
Arpaio is an anti-immigration Arizona sheriff, while Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R) authored the controversial Arizona immigration law, portions of which were struck down by the Supreme Court.
But the border hawks aren’t going anywhere — and predicted a war within the party if Boehner and other Republicans seek to push forward on a comprehensive reform plan.
“They appear to be making a pure political calculation regardless of principle and policy because they think it'll garner votes,” Kobach told The Hill. “I think individuals like Krauthammer and Boehner may have their thoughts they've developed from their high perches but members of Congress are in touch with voters and citizens of America are very anti-amnesty… we have 20 million people unemployed and Republican leaders and now saying it's time for amnesty? That's absurd.”
“I think pandering is the worst way to respond, it'd be a huge mistake and amnesty is a terrible decision, a terrible bill,” said Bay Buchanan, another Romney surrogate and the sister of former presidential candidate Pat Buchanan, a longtime opponent of amnesty.
“If leadership attempts to move in this direction there will be an internal battle on this, it'll be very vocal and it'll be very national,” she said.