The immigration debate that began this week in the Senate looms as the most consequential in years — for the country’s growing Hispanic population and both major political parties.
The bill’s fate could have more effect on future presidential and congressional elections than anything else Congress does this year.
Obviously, its greatest impact will be on the nation’s 50 million Hispanics, 11 million of whom came here illegally and would be directly affected by the measure.
But it will also affect the Democrats, whose support of comprehensive immigration legislation has gained them increasing Hispanic support, and the Republicans, whose opposition has cost them.
Clearly, Republicans have more at stake. Though both parties could share credit if it passes, the GOP needs that outcome to help change its negative image with Hispanics, both in states like Texas with growing Latino populations and in the country as a whole.
Still, the Republicans remain sharply divided on the issue and may get the majority of the blame if the current effort collapses, as did the last one in 2007 — especially if it’s killed by the GOP-controlled House.
The votes of the two Texas senators Tuesday displayed those divisions. Sen. Ted Cruz voted against debating the bill and is an almost certain “no” vote on passage. Sen. John Cornyn, the Republican whip, supported starting the debate but is pushing a key amendment to tighten its border security terms before eligibility for citizenship begins.
Some Republicans say that change would allow them to support the legislation, but Democrats call it a “poison pill” that would kill the bill.
Despite Tuesday’s overwhelming 82-15 vote to begin the debate and polls showing public support of key provisions, the ultimate outcome remains in doubt.
The key factors are whether the bill’s bipartisan Senate supporters can resist a boatload of crippling amendments and achieve the 60 votes needed for final action and whether the House Republican leadership accepts the fact that only bipartisan backing can pass a bill, given the reluctance of many Republicans to touch the issue.
Senate leaders hope to pass the measure in substantially its current form by the July 4 recess, hopefully by so large a margin it would influence some House Republicans.
Meanwhile, Politico reported this week that House Speaker John Boehner and other GOP leaders are working quietly to ensure approval of legislation by the House Judiciary Committee by July 4 and by the full House before the August recess.
It remains unclear whether the committee will work on a comprehensive measure like the Senate bill or follow the preference of its chairman, Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, to divide the measure into separate bills.
If the bill is divided, backers fear the House might vote to tighten border security and back a temporary guest worker program but defeat the crucial section giving illegal immigrants a path to citizenship over 13 years.
That might make it difficult for a Senate-House conference committee to resolve the differences.
For decades, GOP strategists have talked of how their party should be able to gain more Hispanic support, citing the Latino community’s conservative lifestyle and strong religious bent. But Latinos have generally voted Democratic, partly because of support for federal aid programs, most recently President Barack Obama’s signature Affordable Care Act.
Since the strong 40 percent Latino support in 2004 for President George W. Bush, who backed comprehensive immigration reform, backing for Republicans has steadily declined. In 2008, Obama defeated Sen. John McCain by 67-31 among Hispanics and, in 2012, he defeated Mitt Romney by 71-27, according to exit polls.
Despite one appeal for action this week, Obama is keeping a relatively low profile, lest he antagonize potential GOP backers. But he has a lot of stake personally, given that this may be the main item on his second-term agenda with a real chance of approval.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Distributed by MCT Information Services.
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