Resistance to a sweeping immigration overhaul is moving from conservative talk shows to the corridors of power.
The Republican-controlled House of Representatives on Thursday rejected President Obama's policy to stop deporting young people brought to this country illegally as children. With all but six Republicans voting against funding a policy that lets hundreds of thousands of law-abiding but undocumented youth enrolled in high school or the military to stay in this country, the vote spotlighted the long odds facing the much broader Senate bill to allow 11 million illegal immigrants earn citizenship.
The House vote came two days after Republican Gov. Rick Scott of Florida vetoed a bill that would help young people whose deportations were halted by the Obama administration get driver's licenses. And on Wednesday, a key immigration leader in the House, Republican Raul Labrador of Idaho, defected from bi-partisan talks.
These unexpected developments reflect the stirrings of what could snowball into a full-blown revolt against the most ambitious overhaul of immigration law in a quarter century.
"If they think they're going to force-feed amnesty, there's going to be a rebellion," said Rep. Steve King of Iowa, who spearheaded the vote one day after House Republicans huddled with one of the champions of immigration reform, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida. King added: "The vote might indicate that we're not particularly persuaded."
Unlikely to overturn Obama's popular deportation policy, House Republicans and Gov. Scott are seeking to rebuke a president viewed as overstepping his authority. But the actions aimed at perhaps the most sympathetic immigrant group—people brought to this country illegally as children—could undermine the GOP's high-profile, multimillion-dollar investment in Hispanic outreach and recruitment in the wake of the 2012 election. Democratic operatives in Washington hammered the House vote as "extreme," while in Florida, Democratic lawmakers held press conferences for the second day in a row condemning Scott's veto.
"There's no way you can spin this as good," said Republican pollster Whit Ayres, who advises Rubio. "I have thought for some time that if there is going to be immigration reform, it will pass after very intense debate and very vocal opposition. I hope this is a baby step back."
Heritage Action, an influential conservative group, urged members of Congress to support King's amendment and said the vote would be included in its annual legislative scorecard. Its affiliated think tank was widely criticized last month for releasing an anti-immigration reform report by an author who once argued that Hispanic immigrants have lower IQs. Thursday's vote is expected to revive Democratic attacks that portray the GOP as anti-Hispanic and anti-immigrant.
"The optics are really bad for Republicans," said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum. "It's like they forgot what happened in November."
The immigration debate reflects a continuing rift between a Republican establishment that sees the path back to the White House through the fast-growing Hispanic community and the more ideological and conservative wing of the party. For many House Republicans who represent mostly white, conservative districts, immigration reform looks like political suicide.
But Thursday's vote suggested that even GOP members representing large Latino populations aren't willing to budge. Just four Republicans from districts with higher-than-average Latino populations voted against King's amendment; 43 voted for it, including 14 Republicans from districts that are at least one-quarter voting-age Hispanic.
Even members in Latino-heavy districts who may face tough reelection campaigns in 2014—such as Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., who earlier this year said that he supported a pathway to citizenship for undocumented minors brought here by their parents—supported King's amendment.
"There are two political games going on—the short game and the long game," said Gary Segura, a Stanford University professor and principal in the polling firm Latino Decisions. "There's a persistent fantasy that Latino voters are not that interested in immigration reform. So in terms of some Republicans reelection prospects, it might be a wash, but opposition to immigration reform hurts the Republican Party in the long term."
One of the reasons Scott's veto was so puzzling was that the measure coasted through the Republican-controlled Legislature, with only two no votes. Only two other Republican governors have taken the same position as Scott on driver's licenses for undocumented minors: Jan Brewer in Arizona and Dave Heineman of Nebraska.
All other states offer driver's licenses to young illegal immigrants with work permits whose deportation has been deferred by the Obama administration. In fact, five states this year have passed laws offering driver's licenses to adults regardless of their legal status: Colorado, Illinois, Maryland, Nevada, and Oregon. Bills are pending in California, Connecticut, and Vermont.
"Gov. Scott is certainly in the minority and looking backwards," said Tonya Broder, senior attorney with the National Immigration Law Center.
Scott's allies say his veto matches the hardline position against illegal immigration he took in the 2010 primary, when he vowed to bring an Arizona-like crackdown to the state. He dropped the issue in favor of jobs in the general election, and with a robust Spanish-language media campaign, won 50 percent of the Hispanic vote.
While Democrats argue the veto will make the unpopular governor's reelection campaign even tougher, Republicans dismissed the attacks as overblown. New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez's strong approval ratings suggest an easy reelection next year even though she has repeatedly tried to repeal a law granting driver's licenses to undocumented workers. In Arizona, Gov. Jan Brewer's embrace of a tough crackdown on illegal immigrants revived her flagging campaign in 2010. More recently, a judge refused last month to strike down her policy denying driver's licenses to undocumented but working young immigrants.
"If Hispanics see you are reaching out and making a concerned effort to communicate, I think that covers some of the bases," said Florida-based Republican consultant Rick Wilson. "I don't see this as the killer issue for the Democrats, and it doesn't offset the fact that the economy is improving and housing is coming back."