Tough immigration choice for GOP

The Senate’s highest-ranking Republican leaders face tough choices on immigration reform as they balance the needs of the national party against a possible conservative backlash. [WATCH VIDEO]

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and Republican Whip John Cornyn (Texas) plan to vote Tuesday in favor of the motion to proceed to the reform bill, which is more than 1,000 pages long.

But they are undecided about whether to vote “yes” on final passage. That will depend on how the debate plays out and what Republican amendments are accepted. 

Cornyn says the bill’s enforcement provisions must be strengthened, a position shared by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who is a pivotal member of the Gang of Eight. 

ADVERTISEMENT
“In its current form, the Gang of Eight’s immigration bill grants permanent legal status to millions of undocumented immigrants without any guarantee of a secure border,” Cornyn wrote in an op-ed published Monday in USA Today. 

Yet Cornyn did not sign a letter endorsed last week by four other Republican members of the Judiciary Committee condemning the Senate bill as a non-starter. The signatories included Sen. Ted Cruz (R), the freshman Tea Party star with whom Cornyn has stayed in lockstep on other issues. 

McConnell says he wants to see a bill pass the Senate. 

“The status quo is not good,” he told reporters. “And so I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to get a bill that we can pass here in the Senate.”

Backing from McConnell and Cornyn would bring along other Republican senators and likely give the legislation the 70 votes the Senate Gang of Eight is aspiring to attain in order to give it more political momentum. 

McConnell and Cornyn face reelection in 2014; both have positioned themselves to guard against potential conservative challengers. If the GOP base sours on the immigration reform bill, voting for it could open them to attack in a primary. 

The influential conservative blog RedState.com has already teed off against McConnell for signaling his support for the motion to proceed. 

“So even as Obama is embroiled in the worst scandals of his administration, McConnell plans to bail him out with his second biggest legacy victory,” wrote RedState’s Daniel Horowitz. “He is opting to roll over and genuflect before The Schumercare Democrat Voting Act of 2013,” Horowitz wrote. 

Democratic Senate aides say Cornyn has been careful not to stray too far from Cruz, an outspoken conservative. Cornyn and Cruz both voted against the bill during the Judiciary Committee’s markup.  

But Cruz’s influence on the senior senator from Texas might not be as strong as some Democrats assert. 

Bryan Eppstein, one of Texas’s top-ranked Republican consultants, said Cruz’s call to drop the pathway to citizenship from the Senate bill is “out of step with the viewpoint of people in Texas.”

“Cruz is very popular,” Eppstein said, but “that viewpoint is not in step with the majority of Texans.

“It’s not in step with majority of Republicans,” he added. “People want to see it as a responsible earned pathway to citizenship.”

Cornyn’s vote could hinge on the fate of his proposed “Results” amendment to strengthen border security, which he crafted while consulting with Rubio and his staff. 

It would require 100 percent situational awareness at every segment of the Southern border, tracking visa exits with biometric data at some air and sea ports and a 90 percent apprehension rate of illegal entrants along the border’s length before it would grant permanent legal status. 

The Senate Gang of Eight’s bill does make legal permanent residence contingent on these benchmarks.

Democrats have dismissed Cornyn’s amendment as a package of changes already rejected by the Judiciary Committee and say it’s not likely to pass. 

That means the best chance of securing his support is to strengthen the bill’s enforcement provisions though other amendments. Senate sources say Rubio is working on his own amendment to improve border security, although his office has declined to make its details public. 

A Senate GOP aide noted “there is pressure on both sides” as business and agricultural interest groups — including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — support the legislation, while many grassroots conservatives oppose it. 

“It splits Republicans. The one thing you can’t deny is the existence of this problem,” said the aide. 

McConnell and Cornyn have to varying degrees supported past efforts to overhaul the nation’s immigration reform laws. 

McConnell voted for the 1986 immigration reform law, which conservatives now widely pan as “amnesty,” and the Senate reform package of 2006. Cornyn was part of a coalition that negotiated the 2007 reform bill. The late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) took a lead role in drafting the 2006 and 2007 measures.

The two GOP leaders have also felt the intense conservative response that erupted once the immigration reform hit the Senate floor in 2007, when both lawmakers ultimately voted to block the legislation. 

Conservative activists such as Roy Beck of NumbersUSA and Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies say the pushback will be just as intense this year. 

GOP strategists say their party needs to support a reform plan that puts 11 million immigrants in the country illegally on a path to citizenship to level the playing field with Democrats in competing for Hispanic voters, the fastest-growing bloc of the national electorate. 

It will be more difficult for Republicans to start fresh with Hispanic voters if senior leaders vote against reform, which Democrats could use as political ammo. 

But some GOP pundits say immigration reform is politically necessary by 2016 — not by the 2014 election.

Cornyn must pay attention to the changing demographics of his state, where Hispanics will outnumber whites within the next decade.

Mark Metcalf, a former Bush administration official who now serves as the Garrard County attorney outside of Lexington, Ky., says there is strong sentiment in the state among business and agricultural interests for reform.

“It’s critical for our agricultural interests to have a stable workforce that is legally present so they can depend on them from season to season,” he said. “We are a state that is heavily influenced by the agricultural interests and I don’t see that interest diminishing.”

McConnell and Cornyn have more leeway to vote for the bill, as neither yet faces a viable primary challenger. Iraq War veteran Eric Wyatt has declared his intention to run against Cornyn in the primary, but Republican and Democratic strategists dismiss his candidacy as a long shot.