Republicans Walk Immigration Tightrope

Reid Wilson
June 13, 2013

As the Senate begins debate on a sweeping overhaul to the nation's immigration system, some Republicans worry they'll find themselves stuck between a rock and border fence.

And they have good reason to be anxious. The bill presents political opportunities for the Republican Party as a whole, and its efforts to refresh a conversation with the rapidly-growing population of Hispanic voters. It also presents a field of landmines for individual members who face competing interests at home, from business communities that support the bill and conservative activists who oppose it.

The tug-and-pull between the national party's political interests and an individual member's political interests has Republican senators and their advisors taking pains to build a foundation for their votes.

Many Republicans from red states or swing states who fear conservative backlash will use the amendment process to try to strengthen its provisions, according to staffers privy to their bosses' strategic decisions. The amendment process is important, those aides said, because it gives senators the opportunity to show conservative activists in their home states that they pushed for stronger provisions.

Several Republicans who are possible yes votes are already staking out individual corners of the bill they will claim credit for trying to improve. Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio is pushing amendments on strengthening internal job site enforcement and E-Verify. Sen. Mike Johanns of Nebraska wants anyone in the country illegally to move to the back of the line. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas is pushing an amendment that would vastly increase border security. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah are concerned with benefit costs spiraling out of control (Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who has become the main Republican face of immigration reform talks, has privately dubbed the two main concerns he's hearing from GOP colleagues "borders and benefits").

"If you're worried about dialing down conservative blowback, you probably would want to be able to show, here's how you used your vote and your leverage to improve the bill," said one aide to a swing-state Republican. "Use the leverage you have, secure some changes to the bill, then once the bill is strengthened some, come out and say, 'Given these changes, I now feel comfortable supporting this legislation.'"

Others can use their votes on immigration reform to improve their position with moderate voters back home. New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte announced on CBS's "Face the Nation" she would vote for the bill, even before the amendment process began; Ayotte has taken heat in recent weeks for her vote against a bill that would have strengthened background checks for gun purchases. In the days since, Ayotte's office has pushed around supportive editorials from newspapers that have the widest circulations in New Hampshire.

Sen. Dean Heller, one of just three Republicans to win statewide races in states President Obama carried in 2012, has been laying his own groundwork in Nevada. Heller held a meeting during the Memorial Day recess with 30 Hispanic community leaders to discuss the bill.

"He seemed very genuine. He actually listened more than he talked," Ruben Kihuen, a state senator and a member of the Democratic National Committee who attended the meeting, said on Ralston Reports, a Nevada public affairs show. Heller didn't commit to backing the bill, Kihuen said, but "I have a feeling that he's leaning towards supporting it."

In a state where 19 percent of the electorate in 2012 was Latino, Heller's relationship with the fast-growing Hispanic community is crucial to his political survival. "He understands that his state is changing, that the demographics are changing," Kihuen said Tuesday.

Republicans who are moving toward backing the bill are holding tele-town hall meetings and drafting opinion pieces explaining their votes, several aides said, in an effort to lay the groundwork for casting a vote that could disappoint some on the conservative right. Strategists say it's important for Republicans concerned about their right flank to be able to point to efforts to strengthen border security and other provisions of the bill -- a tactic the Senate Republican aide called "prepping the market." It's also important to find a few supportive conservative activists on the border enforcement-first side who can be available for media interviews in the wake of any announcement.

Still, some Republicans are watching nervously as Senate Democrats debate the vote margin they want to achieve on final passage. Sen. Chuck Schumer, one of the bill's lead sponsors, wants to win with 70 votes or more, which would mean attracting at least 16 Republican votes, in an effort to force the House to act. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin are leery, Politico reported Wednesday, of moving the bill too far to the right in hopes of attracting Republican votes, thereby moving away from the priorities liberal immigration reform advocates are pushing.

Winning a large percentage of the Republican Conference, GOP strategists say, has the added benefit of giving more of their members cover to add to the total.

"If you have a critical mass of 70-plus, the House has to act," said one Senate Republican chief of staff. "If you don't have 70, this thing's not going to go anywhere in the House. If you don't have 70, why does [Senator] number 61, 62, 63 walk the plank for something that's not going to go anywhere?"

According to some Senate watchers, as many as 20 Republican Senators are eying each other, not wanting to be first out of the gate but willing to join a bloc of their own party if the bill is moving toward final passage with broad support.

Yet the amendment process to come will yield more surprises. Sen. Mark Kirk, the moderate Illinois Republican, voted against both cloture and the motion to proceed on Tuesday, a move that put him among the most conservative members of his own caucus, like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe and Louisiana Sen. David Vitter. Asked about Kirk's vote, the chief of staff laughed: "We're still trying to figure that one out," he said.