Tea party conservatives are not going to throw themselves on their swords over immigration, at least not yet. The messages resonating from congressional Republicans after President Obama’s speech Tuesday and a bipartisan Senate proposal unveiled Monday are more muted and (dare we say?) measured: The boldest conservatives want to wait and see.
That doesn't mean that the tea party favorites in Congress won't eventually kill an immigration effort. It just means that they are holding their fire.
“I’m going to ask the tough questions about it,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., who earned his tea party credentials by drawing a hard line on reducing government spending as the top Republican on the Senate's budget committee. In 2011, Sessions defended the tea party as the group that “didn’t start this fire—they sounded the alarm.”
Sessions is widely expected to oppose any bipartisan immigration legislation that makes it to the Senate floor, but he isn’t willing to say so now. “I remember, particularly in 2007, I was intrigued by that legislation and I thought it might be acceptable, but as we reviewed it carefully we found it was not going to work when it got put into legislative language,” he said Tuesday, when asked his opinion about a bipartisan framework outlined by several of his colleagues. That framework, by the way, looks very much like the 2007 bill.
It turns out that tea-party conservatives aren’t as wedded to their opposition to an immigration overhaul as they are to reducing government spending. “A lot of people are voicing caution not to rush into this,” said Dan Holler, communications director for Heritage Action, the political arm of the conservative think tank headed by former Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C. Heritage is not afraid to put tremendous pressure on lawmakers to avoid compromises on budget-related issues. On immigration, however, the group is waiting to see the fine print before they jump.
The politics of immigration are trickier than government spending or other top tea-party issues like school choice or entitlements. “If we get good policy through this [immigration] process, all the better, but it isn’t going to change the political dynamic,” Holler said. Republican circles are buzzing with the idea that after the 2012 election, the party has to change its tune on immigration fast or it will alienate a key demographic in Hispanic voters. That’s a troubling notion for hard-core fiscal conservatives, who hope that the GOP negotiators won’t sell their soul in the process. “Hopefully people won’t see immigration reform as a quick political fix, but I think some people do,” Holler said.
House Republicans in particular are being careful about how they approach immigration. Most importantly, they are not saying no. There are negotiations around a bipartisan compromise bill in the House that is separate from the Senate "Gang of Eight" immigration principles. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., chairman of the judiciary panel in the House, and Immigration Subcommittee Chairman Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., have both acknowledged that the immigration system is “broken.”
“Ninety percent of the political people in this town think that Republicans have to move past this issue. But then again, a large percentage of those people don’t have to run for office,” said Monument Policy Group Founder Stewart Verdery, who was responsible for immigration policy in President George W. Bush’s administration and advised former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani in his 2008 presidential bid.
House Republicans have to walk a fine line between following a national public opinion trend tilting towards immigration reform and responding to their own constituents who say they don’t want anything to happen that would increase the number of foreigners in the country. Many Republicans have trouble with proposals that would give legal status to undocumented immigrants, seeing it as a way to encourage even more foreigners to migrate to the United States.
The discussions on Capitol Hill now are looking for a way to calm those fears. Verdery bills the reform approach as a tradeoff for conservatives. “The ability to have more enforcement under existing law is hard. You’re not going to get that without some type of comprehensive reform. Are they willing to throw in the towel on the current situation in exchange for changes going forward?”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., is notable in that he is the only Republican in the Senate's bipartisan “Gang of Eight” who also is up for reelection and could very well face a primary challenge. Graham wants to focus on the future law rather than the present situation. “We’ve got to find a rational way to deal with the 12 million [illegal immigrants] in an earned process,” he said. “But the tradeoff is for doing that, for agreeing to that, I want an economic-based, merit-based immigration system that will deal with our economic needs.”
On his reelection prospects, Graham had this to say. “I’m going to make you a bet. I’m going to get reelected if I’m doing smart things for people in the country and the party, and I care about the party not just me. …The worst thing that’ll happen to me is I’ll go home and practice law.”