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What's Really Holding Republicans Back on Immigration

Jul 12, 2013
Originally published on July 12, 2013 12:45 pm

As debate over the immigration bill continues in the House, NPR’s Mara Liasson explains the political calculations House Republicans are making as they delay a full immigration overhaul.


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This week was not a good one for the prospects of sweeping immigration reform. House Republicans are rejecting a plan that passed the Senate that would increase border security and provide a path to citizenship for the millions of immigrants who are in this country illegally. So what's next? Joining us from Washington with answers is NPR senior political correspondent Mara Liasson. Mara, welcome.

MARA LIASSON BYLINE: Nice to be here.

HOBSON: So I just spoke with one of the House Republicans who opposes the Senate immigration bill, and he is very much against the idea of providing a pathway to citizenship for people who are here illegally. Is that the main argument coming from House Republicans at this point?

BYLINE: I think that is the main objection to the Senate bill. There was this big meeting on Wednesday. The House Republicans went behind closed doors, and they talked about what they really felt about the Senate bill. And although there are probably enough votes in the house to pass the Senate bill, there are not enough Republican votes where the Senate bill would get a majority of Republicans. And that is the criteria that the speaker of the house, John Boehner, has laid down. And some people think he's boxed himself in by saying he's not going to bring anything to the floor, a bill or a conference report, that wouldn't get a majority of his own party's votes.

HOBSON: But what about what happened in 2012? And what people were worried about was - in 2014, which is if the Republicans don't take a new approach to immigration and be a little more open to the idea of the pathway to citizenship that they're going to have a problem in the next election.

BYLINE: Well, they're going to have a problem in the next presidential election, but 2014 is very different than 2016. They're two different electorates. In 2014, which is what all Republicans are focused on right now, most House seats are pretty safe. There are only 10 percent of Repulican-held House seats that have more than 25 percent Hispanic population. So most of those Republicans are only worried about a primary challenge from the right, not a general election challenge.

And in the Senate in 2014, Republicans are targeting mostly Democratic senators in red states or open seats - in Montana, Louisiana, West Virginia, South Dakota, Arkansas. Those are states without large Hispanic populations. So the political imperative for 2014 is to appeal to the traditional Republican electorate: older, whiter, more rural. The political imperative for a presidential election year, 2016, is quite different. That's where you have this younger, browner electorate and that means you have to have different messages and you're targeting different people.

HOBSON: But there are some Republicans, Mara, and I've seen some high-profile Republicans, Karl Rove among them, who do believe that the party needs to change its tune.

BYLINE: There is no doubt about that. There are many Republicans - the establishment wing of the party, the business wing of the party - who think that by rejecting comprehensive immigration reform and a path to citizenship, Republicans are writing themselves the longest suicide note in history. But this is a big divide in the party. Republicans are not in agreement about what they need to do politically about immigration.

You know, you saw in the Senate, 14 Republicans joined with all Democrats to pass this bill. And when you look at what happened to the highest profile Republican in the Gang of Eight in the Senate, Marco Rubio, he was someone who was elected with Tea Party support, but he has been absolutely vilified by the conservative base of the party. He really is a poster child for this identity crisis that the Republican Party is going through. He's been booed at Tea Party rallies. Glenn Beck, the conservative talk show host, called him a piece of garbage. And he's been in so much trouble with the Republican base that establishment Republican groups like the Chamber of Commerce and some Republican superPACs have kind of rushed to his aid and are airing ads on television, telling conservatives to thank Marco Rubio for his work in passing conservative border security immigration reform.

HOBSON: Well - and he's from Florida. But what about a state like Texas? Right on the border, a much redder state than Florida, but one that a lot of people see turning more purple down the road. How does all of this play out in the Lone Star State?

BYLINE: Well, Texas is the best example of what's happening in the country, demographically. Nationally, there are 500,000 new eligible Hispanic voters every year. And Democrats look at Texas and they say, this is a red state that we think, in a couple of election cycles, we can turn purple. They say there are about three to four million eligible Hispanics who didn't vote in Texas in 2012.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: And President Obama only lost Texas by about 1.5 million votes. But you've got both senators, both Republican senators in Texas who are against, who voted no on the Senate bill. One of them, John Cornyn, is up for re-election this cycle, and he is more worried, just like House members are, about a primary challenge from the right than he is about alienating the future emerging electorate that's filled with Hispanics.

HOBSON: Now, Mara, Congress is going to be heading home soon for its famous August recess. I wish we all had one. And they're going to be hearing from constituents. But right now, who are they listening to most when it comes to immigration?

LIASSON: Well, interestingly enough, they just went home for the July 4th recess, and they did hear from their constituents. And Republicans in these safe House districts tended to hear from conservative white voters who elected them. And they don't want an amnesty bill. On the other hand, they are listening to a pretty lively debate among Republican elites and Republican leaders.

On one side, you have the Wall Street Journal editorial page that wants a comprehensive bill. On the other side, you had recently two very influential conservative editors, Rich Lowry of the National Review and Bill Kristol of The Weekly Standard, who came out in an editorial saying, kill the bill. And what they say is, why don't we wait until after 2014? We probably will pick up some more seats in the Senate, maybe we'll even get the majority, and then we can rewrite the immigration bill and make it more to our liking.

Their political calculus was, yes, we need to do better with Hispanic voters, but we're also in a slow-growth, stagnant economy were upward mobility is harder. And we need to appeal to our base. We need to do better with white working-class voters. And it's possible that comprehensive immigration reform could hurt us politically there. This is a very hard circle for the Republicans to square.

And the debate - the deep, internal debate that you're seeing in the party is an example of why Republicans are having such a hard time figuring out what they need to do, how to rebrand themselves to be more competitive in national elections in the future. I mean, you - whenever you talk about immigration, you just have to remember that the Republican Party has lost the popular vote in the last five out of six presidential elections.

HOBSON: Mara Liasson, national political correspondent for NPR. Mara, thank you so much.

LIASSON: Thank you, Jeremy. And I'm happy to be here on my very first time on HERE AND NOW.


HOBSON: It's great to have you.


Well, just ahead, two things people are saying on summer TV and - Jeremy, that I never thought I'd say on the radio - we're trapped "Under the Dome."

HOBSON: And, of course, "Sharknado," which we will hear all about when we come back. HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.