January 29, 2013

National Journal has put together an eye-opening analysis of the racial makeup of GOP-controlled House seats that underscores just how tough a sell immigration reform may prove in the House:

Fully 131 of the 233 House Republicans represent districts that are more than 80 percent white. Not only have many of those members opposed measures beyond improving border security in the past, but there are also no natural pressure groups for immigration reform in their districts. The Democratic Caucus, which is largely unified in support of some sort of immigration-reform proposal, has just 31 members from such very white districts.

Meanwhile, at least 216 House Republicans come from districts that voted for Mitt Romney over President Obama in November. Jobs and the economy were the prevailing issues in these areas, but the voters in those districts also proved they weren’t turned off by a candidate who championed “self-deportation” as an immigration policy.

These factors add up to a House Republican Conference entrenched in the areas of the country that, just three months ago, signaled very strong support for the GOP in its 2012 iteration, which was uninterested in immigration reform. And while the national party has embarked on a period of introspection forced by a crushing national loss, many House Republicans saw their individual victories as mandates to carry on. A number of members represent districts so safe — both politically and demographically — that they don’t need to step out on immigration reform. Some surely fear potential primaries more than standing in the way of a deal: State legislatures across the country are dotted with ambitious Republicans who voted for Arizona-style immigration-enforcement laws over the past few years.

This does make things look grim. In a sense, this analysis underscores the ways that the immigration debate embodies the GOP’s larger problem right now: Most House Republicans, cossetted in safe districts, are insulated from the realities of broader public opinion, and have little incentive to compromise with Obama and Democrats on anything, with the result that it’s harder for the GOP to undergo the “makeover” it needs by adopting a policy agenda that has a chance at winning broad public appeal. The need to repair relations with Latinos is critical if the GOP is to head off demographic doom, but as the National Journal analysis shows, many of these Republicans are insulated from national demographic realities, too.

Indeed, some House conservatives are entirely unrepentant about the party’s harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric. Behold, for instance, GOP Rep. Lou Barletta, who came out against the Senate immigration proposal by arguing that Republicans will never win Latino voters in any case, because they are government-dependent and will always vote Democratic as a result: ” They will become Democrats because of the social programs they’ll depend on.” This is exactly the sort of rhetoric that harmed the GOP among Latinos during the 2012 election; Barletta sees no need to change.

All of this said, there are reasons to believe immigration reform very well may end up getting through the House. Think back to the student loan, payroll tax cut, and fiscal cliff debacles in the House. In all these cases, measures fiercely opposed by conservatives won broad bipartisan support in the Senate, whereupon the isolation of House Republicans proceeded to intensify and the pressure on them to cave grew louder.  then came the surrender, in which the House GOP leadership allowed a vote. The measures passed the House with mostly Democratic support. That’s how things could play out in the House on immigration reform, too, particularly if GOP leaders want it to happen. All signs are that they do. So I wouldn’t declare this dead in the House quite yet.

Still, no question about it: The National Journal analysis does make things look daunting.

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.