By Juan Williams - 07/15/13 09:00 AM EDT
When House Republicans met privately in the Capitol’s basement last week to discuss immigration reform, the far-right members lined up by the dozens to condemn the Senate’s legislation.
Lots of the members gave stirring testimonials about principled conservative opposition to immigration reform. Most often, the GOP House members opposing the Senate bill said it failed to close the door to illegal immigration and rewarded people who broke the law by coming here illegally.
They are trying to maintain a unified line of opposition to immigration reform out of increasing alarm that more members of their caucus might start to say yes, beginning with Speaker John Boehner (Ohio). That list also includes influential members such as former vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan (Wis.).
Even Steve King, the Iowa Republican who is strongly opposed to reform, has said there is a “close to 50-50” split inside the House GOP caucus over whether to permit a vote that allows for legalization of the nation’s 11 million illegal immigrants.
That explains the desperate air behind the cheerleading at the meeting.
Hard-right Republicans know every member that drops off further opens the door to compromise, to conference with the Senate and an immigration reform bill that will reach President Obama.
Already big business, the White House, Congressional Democrats and leading Republicans, such as former President George W. Bush, Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), are approaching the August recess calling for immigration reform.
Last week, just as the House Republicans were privately meeting, the former president attended a citizenship swearing-in ceremony at Dallas’ new George W. Bush Presidential Center and framed the debate in terms favorable to immigration reform.
“The laws governing our immigration system are not working,” Bush said before posing with young immigrants in military uniform who had just become citizens. “The system is broken.”
If House Republicans are failing to repair a “broken” system in the opinion of their fellow party members, they are clearly vulnerable.
For all the talk of porous borders and holding to conservative principles, the hardball reasons for House Republican opposition to any compromise on immigration reform did not get aired at the GOP meeting. There are two:
First, there are few Hispanics in the very safe congressional districts held by most Republicans. Among the overwhelmingly white voters in those districts, the economy, the healthcare act and the national debt seem to be higher priorities. According to a Wall Street Journal analysis, only 16 percent of the 234 House Republicans have more than 20 percent Latinos among their constituents.
Second, in those white, conservative districts the typical GOP incumbent’s fear is a Tea Party opponent in the 2014 primaries. Such an opponent can be expected to claim that any support for immigration reform weakens the economy by bringing in low-skilled workers who rely on public services, don’t pay taxes, don’t speak English and are not Republican voters.
But even among white conservatives in their districts, there are strong arguments for immigration reform. Those arguments come from traditional allies in business, such as the Chamber of Commerce. American businesses, big and small, want an immigration system that reliably offers them access to top minds from around the globe as well as low-skilled laborers willing to pick produce and work in factories.
And then there is the pressure on House Republicans from the national GOP. Without the potential to win Hispanic votes in statewide and national elections, the national party is totally reliant on a dwindling number of aging white voters.
But with the passage of the Senate bill, the pro-immigration reform forces have gained a powerful point of leverage over House Republicans.
The weakness in the House Republican stand was clear when Rep. Raul Labrador, the Idaho Republican, appeared on NBC’s “Meet the Press” and played to reliable GOP distaste for the White House. He did not trust President Obama and outgoing Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitanoto enforce border security improvements in the Senate legislation.
It didn’t work this time.
David Brooks, a right-of-center New York Times columnist, fired back at the congressman. “I’ve rarely seen as intellectually weak a case as the case against the Senate immigration bill … whether we get to 86 percent border security or 90 percent border security, compared to the big things this bill does, they are miniscule.”
The real border problem for extremist Republicans in the House now? They fear not holding the line against calls for immigration reform inside the borders of their own caucus.
Juan Williams is an author and political analyst for Fox News Channel.