Think Republicans feel in a jam about raising taxes? Wait until President Barack Obama springs comprehensive immigration reform on them early next year.
With Obama making plain his plans to push immigration soon, leading establishment Republicans -- fresh off Mitt Romney getting his clocked cleaned by 44 percentage points among Hispanics last month -- insist they are now very much open to a comprehensive package, including eventual citizenship for illegal immigrants.
But while top Republicans think they need to make a big move on the issue and actually want a bipartisan deal with Obama, the rank and file remain skeptical. And it is this tension that is defining the behind-the-scenes machinations as both parties plan for 2013.
"There's a growing sense that this is an opportunity that should be taken," said Ed Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman and top adviser to Romney's presidential campaign. "There's no instinct like a survival instinct."
Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, told us that Republicans should strike first and offer "a conservative immigration proposal that is comprehensive" before Obama's State of the Union address. "My personal belief is that President Obama views this issue from a cynical political perspective not an economic one," the former governor said by email. "After all, when he promised four years ago to do something and he had vast majorities in the Congress, he did nothing."
Many of the Republicans who would have to vote on such a package -- and then run for reelection in off-year primaries and general elections dominated by white conservatives -- aren't so sure it's such a great deal. Regardless of exit polls, demographic trends and lectures from party leaders, lawmakers know that many voters -- especially primary voters, and especially their primary voters -- hate anything that smacks of amnesty. They will hate it even more, given that the issue is likely to come up just after GOP leaders in Washington have negotiated a tax increase.
"Political consultants in Washington are panicking about Hispanics, and their solution is to grant amnesty," said a conservative GOP lawmaker, who insisted on anonymity in order to speak candidly. "They're afraid Hispanics hate Republicans, so they want more of them? It doesn't pass the laugh test. This is an important issue with the Republican base, and members are right to be worried about getting primaried."
GOP sources tell us a small but influential group of conservative leaders have begun talks to provide cover to House lawmakers fearful about the political implications of immigration. Policy advisers to Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and others are working together on a series of smaller immigration bills that the House and Senate could pass over the next two years.
Karl Rove, the former top strategist for President George W. Bush, said, "Many Republicans who were once reluctant to support comprehensive reform are now open to it as long as it doesn't include amnesty -- the forgiveness of an offense without penalty."
Rove added: "And many Republicans have come to understand our borders will never be fully secure until pressure is reduced through a guest worker program and resolving the status of those who are here already."
The Rubio strategy is to take a sequential approach, first passing easier bills, like a guest-worker program. "Nobody is going to get primaried because they voted to allow more high-tech workers into the country," a Republican strategist said. "Conservatives get tripped up on what you do with the 10 million undocumented now in the country. So you find a different coalition for that."
But any Republican efforts to play gradual, political small ball with immigration may be stymied by the president's strategy: Obama is inclined to push for one big bill that includes the one thing the Rubio-Ryan axis might want to avoid -- a pathway to citizenship for undocumented workers now in the country.
Advisers say Obama plans to begin a public campaign shortly after the fiscal cliff is resolved, using social media and grass-roots activity to harness business groups, liberal nonprofits, and the activists who helped generate a record Hispanic turnout in November. The White House is calculating that smart Republicans will put their stamp on the legislation, broadening support. "The fact that we want to move forward on immigration reform doesn't mean we can write the bill, whole cloth," a presidential adviser said.
The issue also carries risk for Obama. Labor unions are leery of immigration reform because of the potential competition posed by more legal workers. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka has sounded conciliatory, arguing that the labor movement was founded by immigrants. But unions will fight fiercely over the exact numbers of immigrants who might benefit. "You also can't discount the issue of race, whether consciously or subconsciously," one labor official said.
However the fight unfolds, this will be a real day of reckoning for Republicans. Prior to November, they appeared to be in denial about the steady decline of the white voter -- and the rise of Hispanics. Every four years, the percentage of the electorate that is white declines -- this time to a historic low of 72 percent, down from 87 percent in Bill Clinton's 1992 win. At the same time, Hispanics surged, from 3 percent in Clinton's first election to 10 percent last month.
There isn't a serious demographer who argues that trend won't continue. How bad could it get for Republicans? They got a glimpse in exit polls: Less than 60 percent of voters under 30 were white.
"The longer that immigration is on the table politically, the more benefits that Democrats can reap," said Jonathan Collegio of American Crossroads, the best-funded of the outside Republican groups.
A growing number of Republicans get this. Look no further than Rubio telling us at Playbook Breakfast last week that he sees a "better than 50/50" chance Obama will sign a pathway to citizenship within four years. "This is going to take awhile," Rubio said. "But we have to do it, it's important to do it, and I believe we can do it."
Fox News host Sean Hannity even told his radio listeners after the election that he's now open to immigration reform, saying it should be framed as a pathway to opportunity and prosperity. "We've gotta get rid of the immigration issue altogether," Hannity said.
There are some signs the politics are changing among conservatives, since the last round of serious congressional debate, which turned nasty and harshly anti-anything-that-looks-like amnesty.
A POLITICO/George Washington University/Battleground Poll out Monday found 62 percent of respondents say they would support "an immigration reform proposal that allows illegal or undocumented immigrants to earn citizenship over a period of several years" -- including 50 percent of conservative Republicans and 52 percent of strong tea party supporters.
Still, the temptation to put off a compromise will be strong for many rank-and-file conservatives, who are accustomed to running against the issue, not for it. Conservative groups have gotten really good at using heavy spending to tilt primary races by backing the more conservative of two conservative candidates.
In the end, it all comes down to whether Republicans are willing to buckle on tax hikes and citizenship -- and then hit the campaign trail.
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