Republicans have an opportunity for a get-out-of-jail moment with the fastest-growing slice of the electorate, Hispanics.
An immigration bill is likely to pass the Senate by the end of the month. The size and shape of the measure and the tone of the debate will be framed by Republicans in the next 10 days.
That may have a small effect on recalcitrant House Republicans. It will have a larger impact on reinforcing or modifying the hostility of Hispanics to Republicans. Party leaders don’t expect to win the Hispanic vote — they’ve put themselves in such a hole that it may take a generation or two to do that — but to clear the deck and begin a conversation with these voters on other issues.
There are three Republican blocs to watch in the Senate this week and next:
The Presidential Aspirants: Marco Rubio of Florida is an architect of the bill before the Senate, and is simultaneously trying to assuage the party’s right-wing base. This balancing act must keep him awake at night. He had been pulling it off until this past week, when he began playing more games that infuriated John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, his Republican partners on the measure.
Whatever the rhetoric and however he votes on some amendments, Rubio still is likely to support the bill in the end.
That won’t be the case with Sens. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz. Paul, the freshman Kentucky conservative libertarian, does remarkably well in some of the hypothetical polls on the 2016 race. He’s trying to carve out a role as a bridge with House Republicans on immigration. That won’t work; it suggests he won’t want to make a big deal of the issue.
Cruz, a Texas freshman who is the most natural tea party candidate for 2016, has no such inhibitions, and seems to relish making his fellow Cuban-American, Rubio, squirm. He has called the path to citizenship — for Hispanics, the sine qua non element of any measure — “the most divisive aspect” of the legislation, and says he is proud to be called “Obamaphobic.”
Governing Lawmakers: In the Senate, liberal-moderate Republicans are dinosaurs. There are, however, as many as a dozen Republicans who are periodically interested in bipartisan consensus and want to support an immigration bill. These include Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska; Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Rob Portman of Ohio, Dean Heller of Nevada and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire.
This group generally is sensitive to finding compromises that aren’t deal killers for Hispanics, and that can win broader Republican support.
“We’re not there, but I think we can find the sweet spot,” says Corker, declaring that he very much wants to vote for the legislation. Now the important negotiations are over a tougher border-security measure that, unlike the proposal by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, wouldn’t impede the creation of a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who already are in the United States.
A mischievous Rubio proposal would require immigrants to be proficient in English before becoming citizens. Graham, noting a list of criteria for citizenship that includes paying back- taxes, learning English, understanding civics and keeping a job, said, “Hell, half my family wouldn’t qualify.”