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In House, Signs of Openness on Immigration

In South Carolina, it’s a good sign you’re among conservatives when the founder of RINO Hunt — “RINO” being short for Republicans In Name Only, of course — is there.

Rep. Trey Gowdy said he was at such a meeting of tea party activists in his district Tuesday, dominated by talk of the new Senate immigration framework. He called the conversation “extraordinarily civil.”

At that meeting and another event, a question-and-answer session about the Constitution, Gowdy said that while conservatives in his district are suspicious about whether an immigration bill would include serious enforcement provisions, it’s a different conversation from the last time immigration was seriously on the table in 2007.

“I would feel comfortable trying to make the argument in my district that real border security and real employment verification should lead us to a real genuine conversation about legal status,” Gowdy, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee’s immigration subcommittee, said.

A colleague of Gowdy’s senses the same sort of civility when talks turns to immigration.

“A lot of the freshman from 2010, what you guys call the tea party class, are actually very interested in immigration reform. They’re people who really want to do something about it. And I think it’s mostly because we didn’t get the bruising of the last immigration fight,” said Idaho Republican Rep. Raúl Labrador.

“There’s a lot of good will in the conservative wing of the party in the House of Representatives to getting something done on this issue,” he added.

A key factor behind the change is political reality, since Republicans are trying to make inroads with Hispanic voters and some strategists believe helping pass an immigration overhaul bill could aid in that larger effort. The leadership of Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., an otherwise staunch conservative who has walked out on a limb in joining the Senate group, is a major factor. And Gowdy cited that evangelical Christian groups have embraced immigration reform as spurring some conservatives to re-evaulate their stances on the matter.

However, Gowdy’s and Labrador’s sentiments aren’t quite reason to think the House will pass a big comprehensive bill like the one the bipartisan Senate group is talking about.

Mark Krikorian, who heads the Center for Immigration Studies, said that opposition is bound to spike when the Senate puts its framework into legislative text, exposing loopholes. “The reason there isn’t alarm is because a lot of them have been expecting something like this,” he said.

Krikorian expects the House to take up a smaller package, something like a “slimmed down version of the DREAM Act combined with mandatory e-Verify.”

There are clear signals from GOP leaders that they would like to tackle immigration. Most recently, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., announced he will give a major policy speech Feb. 5. The speech will include some proposals on immigration reform principles, a GOP source said.

But Speaker John A. Boehner and other GOP leaders are anxiously watching President Barack Obama for signs that Obama is more interested in using the issue to club Republicans than pass legislation, particularly given how his former campaign arm, Organizing for America, conducts itself.

One key issue Republicans are discussing in the House is whether passing an immigration bill will lead to any serious progress with Hispanic voters.

Ford O’Connell, a GOP strategist who has pushed for Republicans to move on immigration and do more to reach out to Hispanics generally, said helping pass a bill is no silver bullet.

“It opens the door for Republicans to begin making their case to Hispanics,” he said.

“After 1986, [George Bush] got less of a percentage of the Hispanic vote than [Ronald Reagan]. So the notion that we are just one path to legal status or citizenship away from electoral success is both historically and anecdotally untrue,” Gowdy said.

“We’re not going to get any credit for immigration being modernized. I just think it’s the right thing. And if we do the right thing, then I think political victories follow,” Labrador said.

Krikorian has a pessimistic view of Republicans’ chances on that front.

“One-third is about where it tops out because the majority of Hispanic voters are Democrats. They’re Democrats in their behavior, in their attitudes. Their demographic and economic conditions are such that they’re almost certain to be Democrats,” he said.

“When you do polling  . . .  you find 61 percent support for Obamacare among Hispanics. Pew asked people whether you support higher taxes and more government services or lower taxes and less government services. What they found was Hispanic Republicans were to the left of White Democrats on the issue of big government.” he continued.

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