Politico: The GOP’s immigration jam

According to Politico, while top Republicans think they need to make a big move on the immigration issue and actually want a bipartisan deal with Obama, the rank and file remain skeptical. This tension is likely to throw a wrench in 2013 negotiations, making comprehensive immigration harder to achieve than many expect.

“There’s a growing sense that this is an opportunity that should be taken,” said Ed Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman and top adviser to Romney’s presidential campaign. “There’s no instinct like a survival instinct.”

Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, told us that Republicans should strike first and offer “a conservative immigration proposal that is comprehensive” before Obama’s State of the Union address. “My personal belief is that President Obama views this issue from a cynical political perspective not an economic one,” the former governor said by email. “After all, when he promised four years ago to do something and he had vast majorities in the Congress, he did nothing.”

Many of the Republicans who would have to vote on such a package — and then run for reelection in off-year primaries and general elections dominated by white conservatives — aren’t so sure it’s such a great deal. Regardless of exit polls, demographic trends and lectures from party leaders, lawmakers know that many voters — especially primary voters, and especially their primary voters — hate anything that smacks of amnesty. They will hate it even more, given that the issue is likely to come up just after GOP leaders in Washington have negotiated a tax increase.

“Political consultants in Washington are panicking about Hispanics, and their solution is to grant amnesty,” said a conservative GOP lawmaker, who insisted on anonymity in order to speak candidly. “They’re afraid Hispanics hate Republicans, so they want more of them? It doesn’t pass the laugh test. This is an important issue with the Republican base, and members are right to be worried about getting primaried.”

GOP sources tell us a small but influential group of conservative leaders have begun talks to provide cover to House lawmakers fearful about the political implications of immigration. Policy advisers to Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and others are working together on a series of smaller immigration bills that the House and Senate could pass over the next two years.

Karl Rove, the former top strategist for President George W. Bush, said, “Many Republicans who were once reluctant to support comprehensive reform are now open to it as long as it doesn’t include amnesty — the forgiveness of an offense without penalty.”

Rove added: “And many Republicans have come to understand our borders will never be fully secure until pressure is reduced through a guest worker program and resolving the status of those who are here already.”

The Rubio strategy is to take a sequential approach, first passing easier bills, like a guest-worker program. “Nobody is going to get primaried because they voted to allow more high-tech workers into the country,” a Republican strategist said. “Conservatives get tripped up on what you do with the 10 million undocumented now in the country. So you find a different coalition for that.”

But any Republican efforts to play gradual, political small ball with immigration may be stymied by the president’s strategy: Obama is inclined to push for one big bill that includes the one thing the Rubio-Ryan axis might want to avoid — a pathway to citizenship for undocumented workers now in the country.

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