Eyeing a majority, Senate Republicans cool to House immigration plan

Eyeing a new majority, Senate Republicans are seeking to trample the immigration reform blueprint crafted by their counterparts in the House.

They are careful not to criticize the substance of the House GOP’s new set of principles by simply saying the chances of crafting a new immigration law this year are remote. Should the thorny debate continue in the months ahead, it could hurt the chances of GOP senators facing primaries and jeopardize the party’s chances of winning the majority in November.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) said Tuesday that he doesn’t see any way the Democratic-controlled Senate and GOP-led House will agree on immigration reform legislation in 2014.

“I think we have sort of an irresolvable conflict here,” he told reporters. “The Senate insists on comprehensive [legislation]. The House says it won’t go to conference with the Senate on comprehensive and wants to look at [it] step by step.

“I don’t see how you get to an outcome this year with the two bodies in such a different place,” said McConnell, whose seat this year is being targeted by Tea Party officials in a primary as well asDemocrats in the general election.

Democrats immediately pushed back against the GOP leader’s prediction.

“Sen. McConnell wasn’t supportive of the Senate process, and contrary to his view, thus far the House principles leave open a real chance we’ll get immigration reform done this year,” said a Senate Democratic aide.

Conservative strategists, however, warn Republicans could scuttle their chances of winning control of the Senate by becoming embroiled in a divisive internal debate over immigration.

“If there’s one thing that could blow up GOP chances for a good 2014, it would be an explosive debate over immigration in the House,” William Kristol, the editor of The Weekly Standard, wrote in a public memo to Republicans.

“Bringing immigration to the floor [insures] a circular GOP firing squad, instead of a nicely lined-up one shooting together and in unison at ObamaCare and other horrors of big government liberalism,” he wrote.

Erick Erickson, the editor-in-chief of RedState, an influential conservative blog, said Tuesday that Republicans should unify by focusing on the Affordable Care Act.

“Anyone seeing reports about the CBO today must wonder why the GOP is dividing itself on immigration instead of uniting against ObamaCare,” he wrote on Twitter, citing a new Congressional Budget Office estimate that the healthcare reform law could decrease the number of full-time workers by 2.5 million over the next decade.

Some Republican lawmakers worry Democrats are pushing the issue of immigration as an election-year ruse designed to splinter the GOP’s conservative base.

“There is a partisan concern that is out there that I am concerned with also. Most of the Democrats would like to have the Republicans come up with something that could be distorted. In fact, it would be awful hard to come up with a bill that you couldn’t use politically prior to the elections,” said Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.). “So I’m not in a real hurry to get anything done.”

Senate Democrats say immigration legislation must include all the major components of reform, tying a path to citizenship for an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants to border security and worker visa provisions.

House GOP leaders released their immigration principles last week during a three-day retreat on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Sources say the reception wasn’t especially warm.

The white paper does not call for a direct path to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants, which is included in the Senate-passed bill.

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who helped draft the House GOP immigration principles, wasn’t bullish on immigration after meeting with colleagues at the retreat.

“I really don’t know the answer to that question. That is clearly in doubt,” he said on ABC’s “This Week” when asked about striking a deal with Senate Democrats and getting something to President Obama’s desk. “It depends on whether they’re willing to actually secure the border, actually have interior enforcement and ... agree to not having an amnesty.”

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), meanwhile, have stopped short of promising to bring an immigration bill to the House floor this year.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who voted for the Senate immigration reform bill last year, agrees with McConnell that an immigration deal is a long shot.

“I think he’s probably right. The Democrats want amnesty and the Republicans would like to solve this problem, but in the House they’re not about to give amnesty,” he said.

McConnell said Tuesday another major obstacle is that Senate Democrats want to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws in one large package, while House Republicans want piecemeal reform.

Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) said a comprehensive package is unpalatable to many Republicans.

“The problem isn’t so much the principles, it’s how legislation actually gets passed and we find consensus, and that’s the challenge,” he said. “The Senate bill is a non-starter because it just reminds people of ObamaCare, another big expensive bill with a lot of moving parts.”

Some conservatives speculate Republican leaders may be downplaying the viability of the House GOP principles in an attempt to mollify conservative critics.

“A lot of conservatives aren’t buying it,” a conservative GOP aide said. “It’s just like when [Sen. Marco] Rubio [R-Fla.] was saying [the Senate bill didn’t] have the votes to pass.”

Republican members of the Senate’s Gang of Eight, who helped draft the comprehensive bill that passed last year, applauded the House GOP principles as an important first step.

“The principles from the House were helpful. It’s up to the House to decide what they want to do,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). “If the House acts, we’ll see what happens.”

But Graham acknowledged the prospects for success this year are uncertain.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen with immigration,” he said.

This story was posted at 2:55 p.m. and updated at 8:21 p.m.