Putting Ryan Out Front Alters Immigration Debate Dynamic

Posted April 23, 2013 at 11:15am

This week’s most important development in the immigration debate has nothing to do with those testy exchanges at Monday’s Senate Judiciary hearings. It didn’t even happen in Washington. And the central player is one of President Barack Obama’s most prominent critics.

The event was a daylong swing through Chicago on Monday by Rep. Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, who ran for vice president last year on the Mitt Romney “self deport” platform and who has continued to make deficit reduction the focus of his congressional career and his 2016 national aspirations.

That all changed yesterday, when Ryan became by far the most prominent House Republican to endorse a comprehensive overhaul of immigration law. And, just to make sure everyone knew what sort of bill he has in mind, his sidekick for the tour was Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez. He’s the Chicago Democrat who’s leading negotiations by a “gang of eight” in the House; they say they’re closing in on a deal on legislation relatively similar to the effort unveiled by a counterpart bipartisan group of eight senators a week ago.

“We have a broken immigration system and, if anything, what we see in Boston is that we have to fix and modernize our immigration system for lots of reasons,” Ryan told reporters during a stop at a church and community house. He was rebutting the notion of some in the GOP that the debate should be put on hold until the immigration backstory and potential terrorist connections of the Boston Marathon bombing suspects is fully understood.

“National security reasons, economic security reasons. For all those reasons we need to fix our broken immigration system,” he said.

Ryan and Gutierrez took the same message to a luncheon for mostly business people at the City Club of Chicago. Ryan said Congress this year should enact legislation that improves border security, bolsters enforcement of existing immigration laws, establishes a new guest-worker program, creates an expedited pathway for children of undocumented immigrants to become fully legalized and sets a “path to earned legalization” for the 11 million now in the country illegally.

Until this point, Ryan has been a behind-the-scenes operator on the immigration front, making himself a conduit for messages between the four Republicans and four Democrats in the House working group, and between those GOP negotiators and leadership. Monday’s appearances signaled that the Budget Committee chairman is ready to use his national presence and his ability to draw significant coverage to push GOP colleagues to the negotiation finish line.

Publicly embracing an immigration overhaul now could also help Speaker John A. Boehner push a bill past recalcitrant conservatives once the Senate advances its initial version, probably early this summer. House leaders are keenly aware of the political imperative of securing a large bloc of GOP votes for the bill; without that they will have a tough time closing the enormous “Latino gap” in the polls before the midterm elections.

Ryan’s new prominence could also be a sign he’s decided that he had better make his move for the Hispanic vote sooner rather than later, especially if he plans to run for president in 2016 and sees Senate gang of eight member Marco Rubio of Florida as his principal competition for the GOP nomination.

At the same time, another prominent member positioning for 2016, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, pulled back significantly on Monday from his earlier wide-open support for a broad immigration overhaul. Paul urged a delay in the debate until  “we understand the specific failures of our immigration system” that allowed the Tsarnaev brothers to emigrate after their ethnic Chechen parents were granted political asylum.

The GOP primaries may be three years away, but Rubio, Paul and now Ryan clearly see immigration as a sure-thing defining issue for their presidential ambitions.