GOP wary of new immigration battle

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Senate GOP leadership is staying away from a proposal to ensure illegal immigrants don’t get tax break payouts from the government, with the party still smarting from a battle over Department of Homeland Security funding.

Senior Republicans generally say they support the goals of the bill from Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck GrassleyChuck GrassleyDemocrats pounce on Cruz's Supreme Court comments Cruz: Precedent exists for keeping Supreme Court short-staffed Sanders to Justice Department: Block AT&T purchase of Time Warner MORE (R-Iowa) that seeks to keep immigrants protected from deportation by President Obama’s executive actions from claiming several years’ worth of earned income tax credits. 

But with the most recent immigration fight having just finished, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin HatchOrrin HatchOvernight Healthcare: How GOP could help fix ObamaCare | Cures bill in jeopardy | Senators unveil Medicare reforms Senators unveil bipartisan Medicare reforms The holy grail of tax policy MORE (R-Utah) has said he’s still examining the legislation, and even GOP leaders who openly back the measure say now is not the right time to push hard for the measure.

“It’s more of a longer-term project,” said Senate Majority Whip John CornynJohn CornynPotential Cruz challenger: 'Don't close off your options' Report: Investor visa program mainly funds wealthy areas GOP senators avoid Trump questions on rigged election MORE (Texas), one of the 10 GOP co-sponsors of the bill.

Conservative lawmakers and outside groups are still angry that the GOP didn’t continue the fight to withhold Department of Homeland Security funding, which they viewed as the best avenue to combat Obama’s decision to shield millions of immigrants in the U.S. illegally from deportation.

“I’m clearly one of those who thinks that we need to continue to push very aggressively and that we should have pushed harder earlier,” said Sen. Mike CrapoMike CrapoCanada expresses willingness to finish softwood lumber deal The Trail 2016: Who is really winning? GOP senator voting for Trump despite rescinding endorsement MORE (R-Idaho), another co-sponsor on the tax credit bill. 

But with a federal court having blocked Obama’s executive actions, Senate Republicans have increased their focus on other issues, including an anti-human-trafficking bill and nuclear negotiations with Iran. 

Top Senate Republicans say lawmakers will have to deal with immigration again but now are less sure about when the matter will return as a central focus on Capitol Hill. The Senate is scheduled to deal with its budget at the end of March, and leadership aides have simply said Grassley’s measure is in the Finance Committee’s hands now.

“It’s an issue that’s always going to be with us,” Sen. John ThuneJohn ThuneWhat will be in Obama’s Presidential Library GOP senators avoid Trump questions on rigged election Republicans question FCC watchdog's 'independence' MORE (S.D.), the third-ranking Republican in the Senate, said about immigration.

Grassley’s bill would bar unauthorized immigrants shielded by Obama from claiming the earned income tax credit, a refundable tax break aimed at working families, for the years they worked in the U.S. illegally. 

Immigrants protected by Obama’s executive actions late last year could potentially receive work permits and a Social Security card, which also allows them to claim the tax credit. And the IRS has made it clear that those workers would be able to seek payments of the credit for up to three previous years, which Grassley calls a loophole that should be closed.

Grassley said Wednesday that he had yet to press his case with leadership about his bill and that his first priority would be talking up the measure with Hatch. But the Iowa Republican also said that any reluctance GOP leaders might have about his bill might fade, when they’re trying to cobble together packages for Medicare’s “doc fix” and the Highway Trust Fund, both of which face deadlines in the coming months.

“I don’t know very many people in the Republican Party that want to fritter away $1.7 billion,” Grassley said, pointing to how much congressional scorekeepers say his measure will raise over a decade.

The proposal also underscores the challenges Republicans face heading into the 2016 election season, after support for the GOP among Hispanics continued to plummet in the last presidential election.

Republican strategists and some lawmakers have said the party has to repair its relationship with Hispanic voters ahead of 2016, and some of the leading contenders for the GOP nomination, including former Gov. Jeb Bush (Fla.), have more centrist records on the issue. 

But the GOP’s base is also full of hard-liners on immigration who oppose congressional efforts to broadly revamp immigration laws. And potential presidential hopefuls like Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzDemocrats pounce on Cruz's Supreme Court comments Brent Budowsky: An epic battle for the future of Congress Cruz: Precedent exists for keeping Supreme Court short-staffed MORE (Texas) were among those pressing the hardest for Republicans to keep up the fight on Homeland Security funding.

Hatch, who supported the Senate’s 2013 immigration bill, said this week that he’d “certainly take an interest in” the measure introduced by Grassley, a former Finance panel chairman, and six other members of the tax-writing committee. 

The Utah Republican has pressed the Obama administration on a related issue, seeking more information from the Social Security Administration about how many new numbers they plan to assign because of Obama’s immigration actions. 

But Hatch also acknowledged that he wanted to take a deeper look at Grassley’s bill and that finding common ground on immigration remained a challenge for Republicans.

“I don’t know that I’d call it a divide,” Hatch said. “But there are different attitudes and different feelings and different bills even.”

Thune said Grassley’s bill could get “a good amount of support” if it hit the Senate floor, given Republicans’ past concern about the amount of fraud connected to the earned income credit and other refundable tax credits.

But other Republicans also wondered about pushing a measure that would almost certainly run into a wall of Democratic opposition.

“I think they could get behind it,” Sen. Richard BurrRichard BurrGOP, Burr challenger trade fire over sexual assault in TV ads GOP vulnerables dial back Hillary attacks Warren’s power on the rise MORE (N.C.) said of his fellow Republicans. “The question is, can you get it through the Senate?”