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Many Republicans Look Ready to Gamble on Immigration Reform

A fight on Capitol Hill over immigration reform now appears inevitable, even though it carries considerable risk for the GOP. Rank-and-file Republicans are up in arms over illegal immigration into the United States, and they are demanding legislative action. [IMGCAP(1)]

Nothing illustrates the division within Republican ranks on the issue more clearly than the very different approaches being taken by Arizona’s two Republican Senators.

Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) have introduced a bill that would allow illegal immigrants in this country to continue working in the United States, eventually earning permanent residency if they meet certain conditions.

McCain’s Senate colleague in the Grand Canyon State, Jon Kyl (R), not only hasn’t signed onto McCain’s bill, but he and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) have introduced an alternative bill that would require illegal immigrants to leave the country before they apply to return as temporary workers.

McCain’s approach is much closer to the one initially preferred by President Bush, who proposed a guest worker program that would allow aliens in this country illegally to obtain green cards to work in the United States for an extended period.

But while many GOP allies in the business community applauded the White House’s proposal, and while “establishment” Republicans generally found favor with the approach, most conservatives reacted angrily, saying the idea rewarded illegal immigrants with “amnesty.”

Whatever the Senate decides, House Republicans already have their collective minds made up. They clearly are more concerned with getting illegal aliens out of the country, and keeping them out, than with finding a way to allow aliens to work in the country.

Rather than producing a comprehensive bill, House Republicans seem to prefer dealing with the issue in two separate steps. The first bill would deal with border security and enforcement, while a subsequent measure takes up the guest worker issue. But you don’t have to speak with many House Republicans to understand that many of them wouldn’t care if they ever get to the second bill.

While analysts have been talking for months about the issue and its potential to shape next year’s campaigns, immigration already has become a thorny political issue, showing up in a handful of 2004 races, mostly GOP primaries.

Last cycle, Illinois Senate candidate Jim Oberweis ran a TV spot that warned “illegal aliens are coming here to take American workers’ jobs.” In Arizona’s 8th district and Utah’s 3rd district, GOP primary challengers tried to use immigration to deny renomination to Reps. Jim Kolbe and Chris Cannon. And the anti-immigration Coalition for the Future American Worker ran TV spots against Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) and two Democrats, then-Sen. Tom Daschle (S.D.) and then-Rep. Martin Frost (Texas), for their immigration positions.

Rules Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.) saw his winning percentage plummet after being bludgeoned for backing Bush on guest workers.

Immigration already shows signs of being a big issue in next year’s elections. This year, state Sen. John Campbell (R), the favorite to win a special election to fill former Rep. Christopher Cox’s (R) open California House seat, has aired a TV spot in which he bragged that he “is working to stop illegal immigration.”

Curbing illegal immigration is the primary issue for Canyon County Commissioner Robert Vasquez in a multicandidate Republican primary in Idaho’s 1st district. “I’m not a hyphenated American,” Vasquez said. “I speak Spanish, I eat enchiladas. I appreciate my culture, but I love my country.”

But while the immigration issue has the potential to rally the party’s conservative base and provide the GOP with an issue that could alter the overall national debate, it could also create a civil war within the Republican Party.

McCain already has mocked the opposing Senate bill, referring to it as “report to deport,” and plenty of Republicans, including those in the business community, oppose punitive legislation that doesn’t allow undocumented aliens to work in jobs that many Americans don’t see as appealing.

Some Republicans also openly worry that the party will be branded as “racist” and “anti-Hispanic” if Congress deals with the issue as most House Republicans prefer. They note the problems California Republicans have had with Hispanic voters ever since then-Gov. Pete Wilson (R) took on illegal immigrants in his 1994 re-election campaign.

Not all party insiders agree with that fear, however. One GOP operative told me he doubts that is a huge problem as long as Republicans emphasize the “illegal” aspect.

Adding into the political equation on the issue is that the president’s standing in public opinion polls encourages House and Senate Republicans to fight him on immigration, regardless of what position he takes. As one consultant told me, “There are a significant number of Republicans looking to split with the president, as a way of helping them survive in ’06. That’s a piece of the puzzle, too.”

Even with immigration reform’s potential downside, some party strategists believe immigration could emerge as an issue that Republicans can ride from now all of the way to next November. As one Republican strategist told me recently, “Better [immigration] than the other ‘I’ word” — Iraq.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.