Ted Cruz looms large over comprehensive immigration reform

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) has shaped the view of Republican leaders on immigration reform, and his sway with grassroots conservatives will make passing comprehensive legislation significantly more difficult.

Cruz scored a victory in the battle for the hearts and minds of his party over the weekend when Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) backed away from the Senate’s overhaul of immigration laws.

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GOP leaders, after President Obama’s reelection last year, sounded more open to moving broad legislation on immigration, but their interest in doing so has waned as Cruz’s power has grown.

“There are going to be a lot of Republicans who don’t want to be on the other side of Ted Cruz,” said Rosemary Jenks, director of government relations at NumbersUSA, a group that advocates for reduced immigration flows.

Cruz told Rubio and other Senate Republican colleagues earlier this year that a bill including a pathway to citizenship for an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants could not pass Congress and suggested removing the controversial provision.

Cruz has yet to decide what strategy he will pursue in the weeks ahead as Obama and Democrats try to ramp up pressure on the House to pass immigration reform.

“He’ll definitely be engaged,” a Senate GOP aide said.

Cruz’s influential stands against funding the Affordable Care Act and passing comprehensive immigration reform have made him a hero among conservative activists in Iowa, which hosts the first contest in the GOP presidential primary election.

“If the caucuses were held today, he would lap the field,” Steve Deace, a nationally syndicated radio host based in Iowa, told The Hill last week.

Deace said “Rubio is a nonstarter here” because of his partnership with Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) to pass the Senate immigration bill.

Cruz spent the weekend in Iowa with Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), the most outspoken critic of comprehensive immigration reform in the lower chamber. It’s a potentially fruitful relationship for both lawmakers.

Cruz, who has become an influential voice among House Tea Party conservatives, can help cement opposition to merging the broad Senate package with one of the narrower House bills that could pass there this fall. 

King does not want any immigration reform proposal to pass, fearing that one of the House piecemeal bills could later be used as vehicle to move the 1,200-page Senate bill.

King’s support could be crucial in the 2016 Iowa caucuses if Cruz decides to launch a bid for the White House.

Cruz pointedly clashed with Schumer, the chief Democratic sponsor of the Senate bill, and McCain on the need to pass a comprehensive bill in April.

“Any attempt to say in the House that you will not have a path to citizenship, will be a nonstarter,” Schumer warned reporters at a breakfast sponsored by The Christian Science Monitor. “I say that unequivocally. It will not pass the Senate.” 

“There’s no way of getting this job done without giving people a path to citizenship,” McCain told reporters.

At a Judiciary Committee hearing a few days earlier, Cruz warned a comprehensive bill could not pass

“I think if instead the bill includes elements that are deeply divisive — and I would note that I don’t think there is any issue in this entire debate that is more divisive than a path to citizenship for those who are here illegally — in my view, any bill that insists upon that jeopardizes the likelihood of passing any immigration reform bill,” Cruz said.

Conservative strategists say Cruz’s aggressive push to defund ObamaCare, which resulted in a 16-day government shutdown, has slammed the door on the Senate bill.

“The defund fight has affirmatively closed door on passing amnesty because it soured the relationship between the White House and Republicans,” a conservative strategist said.

Cruz’s popularity among Tea Party voters soared during the shutdown. A recent Pew poll showed he had a 74 percent favorable rating among Tea Party Republicans.

Conservatives warn that if GOP leaders attempt to negotiate a comprehensive reform bill with Senate Democrats, they would risk another intraparty blowup.

“They have no credibility to push through something so unpopular with the base,” the conservative strategist said.

Rubio, a likely 2016 presidential candidate, tempered his support for the Senate bill over the weekend.

“An ‘all or nothing’ strategy on immigration reform would result in nothing,” Alex Conant, Rubio’s spokesman, said Monday.

“What is keeping us from progress on a series of immigration issues on which there is strong consensus is the fear that a conference committee on a limited bill will be used to negotiate a comprehensive one. We should take that option off the table so that we can begin to move on the things we agree on,” he added.