GOP sees immigration as path to regain power

Republicans are building their case for taking back control of Congress around immigration, which they see as their top issue heading into the midterms.

Polls show President Biden with a high approval rating, bolstered by the pace of vaccinations and optimism about the economy. Yet they also indicate Biden’s handling of the border is a weakness, creating an opportunity in the eyes of the GOP.

Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) on Wednesday predicted that immigration will be a “potent weapon” for Republicans.

Democrats will be vulnerable if “they refuse to come up with solutions for what’s going on” at the southern border, Thune said.

“It’s a very potent issue. It has been in the past and I think it will be,” he said. “If they want an open border policy, that’s not something that’s going to have majority support in the country.”

Democrats are not advocating an open border policy, but the party has pushed back hard at former President Trump’s hard-line policies on the border, including his vow to build a wall and make Mexico pay for it — a promise that went unfulfilled.

Biden is also dealing with a crisis at the border as a wave of migrants including thousands of children seek entry to the United States and escape from violence in Central American nations. Biden has come under pressure from his own party to handle the migrants humanely; the White House has said the vast majority of migrants are returned to their home countries.

“I think it’s going to be a big issue,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a close ally to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

Cornyn and other Republicans have sought to cast the White House as unwilling to work with Republicans on solutions to the border, a message that dovetails with GOP complaints that Biden’s vows of bipartisanship during the campaign were empty.

“I’d like to work with the administration if they’d just work with us,” Cornyn said. “You’re going to have to change some of the policies. I don’t think they really understand the nature of the problem.”

Cornyn plans to introduce bipartisan legislation with centrist Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar (Texas) to reform laws for dealing with unaccompanied migrant children. He says the measure would reduce the number of children released into the United States while they wait for immigration courts to process their cases.

“I’m sure it will be a big issue. The chaos at the border is the direct result of political decisions made by [President] Joe Biden and [Vice President] Kamala Harris and it’s producing a humanitarian crisis, a public health crisis and a national security crisis,” said Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who predicts the issue will “very much so” be a liability for Democratic congressional candidates next year.

Republicans feel control of Congress is well within their grasp, as the Senate is divided 50-50 and Democrats have only a six-seat majority in the House. The president’s party historically loses seats in an off-year election.

GOP lawmakers have had a tough time finding a breakthrough message to puncture Biden’s lofty job approval ratings, a point they have acknowledged publicly.

But they see the administration’s handling of the border and illegal immigration as an opening.

A Pew Research Center survey conducted earlier this month showed that Biden has a 59 percent approval rating. But it also showed that 48 percent think illegal immigration is a “very big problem” — an increase of 20 percentage points from June.

The political gamesmanship may be a bad sign for the prospects of a deal on border security, a pathway to citizenship for illegal residents or a long-term solution to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) is meeting quietly with a group of Republican senators to put together a starting-point proposal to at a minimum address the explosion of asylum cases. Durbin met with the group, including at least four Republicans, Wednesday afternoon.

“Despite the national party rhetoric, individual senators are still very interested in talking about aspects of immigration. I haven’t given up,” he said. 

But other Democrats are skeptical about reaching any deal with Republicans given the GOP’s political strategy.

Sen. Bob Menendez (N.J.), a leading Democratic voice on the issue, wants Congress to use budget reconciliation to pass a robust immigration reform package through the Senate with a simple majority vote, bypassing a Republican filibuster.

Menendez and other members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus discussed using reconciliation to enact immigration reform during a meeting with Biden at the White House on Tuesday, and Menendez said the president expressed support for the idea.

“We pressed the question of that if we cannot get a bipartisan agreement, which we are working on … in the absence of getting 10 Republicans, we’d like to know that he’s open to the possibility of immigration or elements of immigration reform through reconciliation,” Menendez said. “We want as broad as a reform as we can get.”

Durbin said Wednesday that he prefers moving immigration reform through regular order, instead of using the budget rules to bypass Republicans.

“The starting point is this bipartisan effort. I want to take it as far as I can take it,” he said.

Any bipartisan immigration reform legislation that has a chance of passing the Senate with at least 60 votes is going to be far more limited than the comprehensive bill that passed the upper chamber with 68 votes in 2013.

That bill had the support of 14 Republicans, including five who are still in Congress: Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), John Hoeven (N.D.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Marco Rubio (Fla.).

Such legislation would be less likely to get such GOP support in 2020, given the political punishment Rubio suffered after helping to craft the 2013 immigration bill. The effort hurt Rubio in the 2016 presidential primary. Trump, who won, accused Rubio of favoring “amnesty” in November 2015.

Trump’s hard-line approach toward illegal immigration over the past five years and the popularity of his brand of politics among the Republican base now makes it very hard for Republican senators to risk working with Democrats on another broad immigration reform package.

Tags Bob Menendez Dick Durbin Donald Trump Joe Biden John Cornyn John Hoeven John Thune Lindsey Graham Lisa Murkowski Marco Rubio Mitch McConnell Susan Collins Ted Cruz

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