June 28, 2013 10:50 am

US immigration vote brings day of reckoning for Republicans

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Bill Kristol did not mince words this week when he advised the Republicans in the House of Representatives on how to approach immigration reform.

“The House GOP, for the sake of party and country, should say no: No Capitulation, No ‘Comprehensive’ Bill, No Conference,” wrote Mr Kristol, the editor of the conservative Weekly Standard and patron saint of conservative luminaries such as Sarah Palin and Paul Ryan.

He urged John Boehner, the Republican speaker of the House, to “kill” efforts to overhaul the US’s immigration system.

With the Democrat-controlled Senate passing a comprehensive immigration reform bill on Thursday – one that would give the 11m unauthorised immigrants in the US the “big enchilada” of a pathway to citizenship – the focus now shifts to the Republican-dominated House.

That means Republicans are facing a moment of reckoning.

Do they stick to their principles and oppose what many call “amnesty” for illegal immigrants, and in doing so risk alienating Hispanics, the fastest growing electorate in the US?

Or do they hold their noses and swallow an overhaul, getting rid of the issue with plenty of time until the midterm Congressional elections in November next year?

The modernisers within the Republican party establishment would go for the latter. As the party’s “autopsy” after the 2012 presidential elections concluded: “If Hispanic Americans hear that the GOP doesn’t want them in the United States, they won’t pay attention to our next sentence.”

But the momentum is with the former, with a growing number of lawmakers and commentators tending to Mr Kristol’s view that it is better for Republicans to sink the bill than to allow it to swim.

“It’s so much easier to vote against something than to vote for something,” said John Feehery, a former House Republican leadership aide.

Furthermore, while the Hispanic electorate may be influential in presidential elections – as Mitt Romney, who promised to make illegal immigrants “self deport”, discovered to his disadvantage last year – it does not hold sway in many of the districts in the American heartland.

For that reason, Mr Feehery notes that Republicans in the House don’t seem too concerned about the Latino vote. “The rhetoric has been pretty charged,” he said. “They don’t seem to care about Hispanic voters because there are so many districts that don’t have Hispanic voters.”

It’s so much easier to vote against something than to vote for something

- John Feehery, a former House Republican leadership aide

Tom Cole represents one of those districts, in Oklahoma. “While most senators aren’t up for election next year, every member of the House will be on the ballot,” said Mr Cole, whose district is less than 5 per cent Hispanic.

Indeed, House Republicans’ primary concern seems to be with avoiding primary challenges from more rightwing candidates in the lead-up to next year’s elections. That, Republican aides say, means that if the issue does progress through the House, it is not likely to happen until the middle of next year, after primary season is over.

In that vein, Mr Boehner this week signalled the House would march to its own beat.

“We’re going to go home for the recess next week and listen to our constituents,” he said, ahead of the July 4 holiday. “And when we get back, we’re going to have a conference on July 10 to have a discussion about the way forward. I don’t want to make any predictions on what the outcome of that conversation’s going to be.”

Despite his public posturing, people who have met privately with the speaker say that he wants to get some kind of immigration reform. The question is what kind.

The House has signalled it will deal with immigration reform through a series of smaller bills, rather than adopting the big package the Senate passed. That will give Republicans the opportunity to vote for the parts that they like – such as border security – and not for the parts they don’t like – namely the pathway to citizenship.

But Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles and an influential Republican voice on immigration, says it will be “devastating” if his party fails to act.

“It would confirm what Democrats have been saying about us all along – that we don’t care about immigration and we don’t care about Hispanics,” Mr Aguilar says. “There is no reason for the House not to do anything.”

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