POLITICS
04/17/2013 10:02 pm ET | Updated Apr 17, 2013

Republicans See Party Future On The Line As Immigration Debate Heats Up

Alex Conant

WASHINGTON -- It's been a bumpy few weeks for the Republican Party's Hispanic outreach effort.

A Republican congressman referred to Latino laborers as "wetbacks" late last month, and later apologized. Another Republican congressman on Wednesday said terrorists were being trained to "act like Hispanic" in order to get across the border.

GOP lawmakers are locked in a public battle with President Barack Obama over his labor secretary nominee, Tom Perez, who is the son of Dominican immigrants and is known as an advocate for immigrants.

Most substantively, there are stirrings on the right flank of the Republican Party to block the immigration reform bill being debated in the Senate. Last week, the Heritage Foundation came out against it. If opposition to the legislation ripples through talk radio and out to the conservative grassroots, Heritage's move will likely be seen as the first domino that fell.

After the 2012 election results showed a stunningly low level of Hispanic support for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney -- just 27 percent -- the party vowed to do better. Many in the GOP believe its future is inextricably tied up with the immigration reform deal.

But now the moment of truth is approaching, and the GOP may be about to shoot itself in the foot again with the nation's biggest and fastest-growing minority group.

Republican power players are sweating this possibility a little. But not too much. Interviews with several operatives who spend their days and nights worrying about the GOP's future found a low level of anxiety about whether the party may trip itself up.

"There's no question it's a huge concern," said one Republican consultant who works closely with GOP leaders in Congress and with business leaders.

This operative and others thought that insensitive, even racist comments and labor secretary nominations were minor factors compared to the passage of immigration reform. And they sound highly confident that something will get done there.

"If people would rather be right than win, this may go down. But I think you're seeing a pretty concerted effort … to try to put this issue behind us," the GOP consultant said.

Henry Barbour, a member of the Republican National Committee from Mississippi, echoed that idea. "There is some concern, but I think there is, frankly, momentum for a comprehensive solution to immigration reform," he said.

"There is thinking in the party that we're tired of this group think and we're not just going to be shouted down by the loudest voices and it's OK to have a debate," Barbour added. "I'm not advocating for amnesty, but I am advocating that the party deal with this."

To a person, the Republicans who spoke to The Huffington Post said that immigration reform is a kind of gateway to a larger conversation with Latino voters. It does not guarantee their support. Instead, it is an obstacle standing in the way of the GOP even gaining a hearing with many Hispanics.

But there is a danger for the GOP here. The political appetite within the party for an immigration bill may be so intense that it actually increases opposition to the effort among the party's more ideological and policy-oriented members. The hunger for a bill, any bill, may convince some who want a good bill that they are, in fact, getting a bad bill. This is a conservative instinct that has been honed over the past several years, as politicians of both parties have invoked emergencies of different kinds -- political, economic, social -- to justify legislation. The 2008 bailout bill is the best example.

Ben Domenech, a fellow at the Heartland Institute, wrote Wednesday in his daily newsletter, The Transom, that the Senate immigration bill "is rife with problems, the chief being that it does not solve the real problems with the immigration system, it creates entirely new problems, and it will not, as currently formed, pass the House."

Domenech cited detailed objections to several parts of the proposal, which was put online Tuesday. The border security metrics, he said, are "impossible to know" and easily gamed to produce desired results. Similarly, he said the guest worker visa program is designed in such a way that it will be easy "for the unions and corporate interests to game and manipulate the labor market."

"It’s difficult to imagine a more anti-market solution than this one," Domenech wrote.

So conservative objections to the bill are solidifying and will need to be addressed. Yet one Republican communications consultant, who played a senior role on Romney's 2012 presidential campaign, had no patience for protestations from the right flank.

"They had their chance. They've had their opportunity," the consultant said, referring to the 2007 immigration debate, when conservatives played a big role in killing a bill. "And what has the result been? The result has been the issue has gone unaddressed. The illegal immigration issue has been exacerbated, and the party is losing seven out of 10 Latino voters. It is time for those who want to fix the problem and want to win races."

He was just getting warmed up.

"If they call themselves Christians, as most do, they need to look at their neighbor and treat their neighbor as they want to be treated. These are core values that this country and this party is founded upon," he said. "Is it easy? Will they like it? No. I didn't like when my mom gave me cod liver oil when I was a kid. But she did it because she loved me. And we're doing it because we love them. We are giving cod liver oil to others in the party so that we can all be strong and healthy as a majority party."

This may not be the most effective way of winning over conservative skeptics of the immigration bill. What might work is the route that Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla) is taking.

Rubio has been a tireless explainer of the bill. He first laid the groundwork for the deal by waging a charm offensive back in January when the bipartisan "gang of eight" senators, including Rubio, began work on the latest reform effort. On Wednesday, as much of the nation was fixated on the Boston Marathon bombing aftermath and the gun control debate in Washington, Rubio was back at it. He did a series of interviews with conservative talk radio hosts, including former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Mark Levin.

Huckabee, after hearing Rubio explain what undocumented immigrants will have to go through to get on the proposed path to citizenship, gave it a stamp of approval.

"You know listening to the various stages that a person has to go through, I'm not that surprised the Republicans would be for it," Huckabee said. "It sounds like, you know, like a fairly rigid pathway. I'm surprised the Democrats are going to be for it."

Rubio has also been playing free safety this week, delivering hits to those on the right who he believes are mischaracterizing the legislation or trying to undermine it. The 41-year-old senator and likely presidential candidate in 2016 fired a warning shot in the direction of Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) after the potential Senate candidate called the Boston Marathon attack a reason to hold off on immigration legislation -- since the bomber might have been in the country on a student visa.

"We should really be very cautious about using language that links these two things in any way," Rubio said. "I would caution everyone to be very careful about linking the two."

Additionally, Rubio and his staff were quick to correct conservative bloggers who tried to gin up a false story about free government phones for immigrants, which they dubbed "MarcoPhones." And Rubio kicked off the week by appearing on seven Sunday shows to make the case for his bill.

Conservatives, advocates and even Democrats have been impressed with Rubio's performance.

Daniel Garza, executive director of the Libre Initiative, a nonpartisan nonprofit that works for "economic freedom in the Hispanic community," said that "Rubio taking the lead that he's taken has been extremely helpful."

"We have the right voices leading this thing," Garza said.

Garza worked in the George W. Bush administration but said his interest in an immigration bill has nothing to do with the future of the Republican Party. Nonetheless, he said, "If a Republican-controlled house can pass immigration reform, that is seismic. And Hispanics will know that."

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