One tacit premise of the Republican House leadership’s push for immigration reform is that it’s good politics. The four members of the GOP conference stepping on to a larger stage this year, as candidates for the U.S. Senate, will probably disagree, and the 2014 campaign season may pit House leaders, chief among them Speaker John Boehner, who are campaigning for reform, against some of the party’s rising stars who are likely to crisscross their states inveighing against it.
Two of the GOP’s Senate candidates, West Virginia congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito and Arkansas congressman Tom Cotton, are considered up-and-comers in the party. They are challenging incumbent Democrats but are considered likely to win their races. In the House last summer, Cotton led the conservative opposition to the Gang of Eight bill; one Republican congressman tells me that e-mails are “flying around lampooning the legalization proposal” being floated by House leadership, and “these aren’t guys like Steve King but guys like [Raul] Labrador and [Tom] Cotton and [Mick] Mulvaney.” Capito states on her website that she supports a border fence, including a virtual fence “that uses cameras, sensors, and motion detectors”; opposes amnesty; and says it’s her mission to “ensure that millions of jobs are not taken from hardworking Americans by illegal immigrants.”
Louisiana’s Bill Cassidy and Montana’s Steve Daines are also likely to oppose the sort of piecemeal immigration reform that is likely to come through the House. Asked for Cassidy’s views on the current immigration debate, a spokesman referred me to the congressman’s statement explaining his opposition to the Gang of Eight bill. Daines has stated that he will oppose “any proposal that contains amnesty for illegal immigrants currently in our country.”
How an intra-party debate on immigration will impact the 2014 landscape is an open question. One House Republican familiar with the thinking of the candidates calls the legalization provisions contained in the principles released by House leadership “ludicrous and insulting” and tells me that, ahead of the 2014 midterms, the candidates themselves worry that “the whole effort will do nothing but provoke a scorched-earth, bloody civil war in the GOP, the only victor of which will be the Democratic party.” Another House Republican tells me, via text message, that the “general feeling” is that “getting into immigration will hurt Senate takeover chances.” National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Brad Dayspring, on the other hand, doesn’t see the issue having much of an impact. “Polling shows [immigration] is not an issue with huge resonance and each candidate will handle in the appropriate way for their constituents,” he says.
Leadership aides have suggested that House speaker John Boehner won’t push legislation until after primary filing deadlines, but some say that raising the issue at all right now will make primary fights more contentious than they already are. “It’s not good in general to have an ongoing civil war in our party when you’re trying to unify the party, trying to get people to knock on doors and make phone calls,” says a GOP member.
The page-long statement of principles House leaders unveiled Thursday at the conference’s annual policy retreat in Cambridge, Md., doesn’t mention the report commissioned by the Republican National Committee in the wake of the 2012 election, but that document put it bluntly. “Hispanic voters tell us our Party’s position on immigration has become a litmus test, measuring whether we are meeting them with a welcome mat or a closed door,” the report said, recommending that the GOP “embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform” lest it “shrink to its core constituencies only.”
A Republican strategist supportive of the party’s immigration reform efforts says that leadership is likely to put forward a series of piecemeal initiatives that don’t touch “the hottest of topics,” including “real amnesty,” but that include things like the legalization of children brought to the country illegally. The president suggested on Friday that he is open to supporting the measures Boehner is floating. “If the speaker proposes something that says right away: Folks aren’t being deported, families aren’t being separated, we’re able to attract top young students to provide the skills or start businesses here and then there’s a regular process of citizenship, I’m not sure how wide the divide ends up being,” he told CNN. Whether Boehner is willing to violate the Hastert rule and allow various reforms to pass the House if only a minority of Republicans support them may be the outstanding question.
“A lot of people speculate that this is John Boehner’s swan song,” says a GOP representative. If so, some of his party’s brightest stars will be looking to make their way to the Senate, and campaigning against their speaker’s position as they do so.