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Why Republicans shouldn’t wait to pass immigration reform

Reporter

A betting man, which The Fix is most definitely not, would say that the odds of some sort of immigration reform measure passing before the 2014 elections are decidedly less than 50-50 after a week when both Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker John A. Boehner talked down the idea.

The logic is simple: The Republican base — a.k.a. the voters the party badly needs in order to win back the Senate and hold the House in November — doesn’t like the idea of providing the 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States with a path to legalization or, especially, citizenship. Those in the base also don’t believe that the Obama administration is up to the task of enforcing more-stringent border security measures, even if Congress passes some.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House. View Archive

Given how few Republican members of Congress represent competitive districts with sizable Hispanic populations — there are only four House districts Republicans hold that have a Hispanic population of 25 percent or more and were carried by President Obama in 2012 — and the strong feelings against reform within the party base, it’s not hard to see why McConnell (R-Ky.) and Boehner (R-Ohio) have cooled on the idea of passing immigration reform before the midterms.

And yet, there is a political case to be made that now — not 2015, 2016 or some other uncertain date in the future — is the time for Republicans to pass immigration reform. Let’s walk through the evidence.

1.) No, the Republican base doesn’t like comprehensive (or even semi-comprehensive) immigration reform. But guess what it likes less? Obama and the Affordable Care Act. In a late January Washington Post-ABC News poll, 89 percent of Republicans disapproved of how the president had handled the implementation of the health-care law. Even more amazing? Seventy-nine percent strongly disapproved, a remarkable testament to how much passion the law stirs up in the GOP base.

It’s hard to imagine anything short of comprehensive immigration reform with a path to citizenship causing a major diminishment in Republican-base intensity surrounding Obama and his health-care law. “Assuming Obamacare is still law and President Obama is still in office this November, our people are coming out,” said one Republican strategist supportive of immigration reform.

2.) The idea that it would be better — and more politically savvy — to wait until 2015 to tackle immigration reform overlooks one thing: By early 2015, the 2016 presidential race will already be underway. And there are at least three Republican senators — Rand Paul (Ky.), Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Ted Cruz (Tex.) — who are near-certain candidates.

Anyone who thinks immigration reform is possible under those circumstances needs only to remember the 2012 presidential race, when, desperate to prove his conservative credentials, Mitt Romney promoted a policy of “self-deportation” to handle the country’s millions of illegal immigrants. He went on to win a measly 27 percent of Hispanic voters in the general election.

If the worry is that passing immigration reform now would anger the party’s base, can you imagine the pressure on the likes of Rubio — or Govs. Chris Christie (N.J.) or Scott Walker (Wis.) — to play to the base on the issue in 2016?

3.) It’s hard to see Republicans winning a presidential election in the coming years without making inroads into the Hispanic community. Consider this: Romney won the white vote by 20 percentage points, carried independent voters by five points and won voters who said the economy was the most important issue by four points. And he still lost to Obama by 126 electoral votes.

Combine the shrinking white vote — it declined as a share of the overall electorate again in 2012 — with the boom in the Hispanic population, and it becomes quite clear that Democratic lean is a demographic problem that is only going to get worse for Republicans. That is, unless the party can find a way to be competitive — or at least a whole heck of a lot more competitive than Romney — among Latinos.

While even the most pro-immigration-reform Republican strategists admit that simply passing some sort of overhaul won’t solve the party’s problem with Hispanics, they believe it is sine qua non when it comes to courting those voters. As in, if immigration reform doesn’t pass with some Republican help, there will be no chance for the party to make its argument to Latinos on social or fiscal policy. They just won’t be listening.

If you believe those are the stakes, then it might be worth trying to pass immigration reform, even if it could cost you a chance to retake the Senate in November.

All of the above doesn’t change the political reality that immigration reform had — and has — a very narrow window to be passed in the 113th Congress. Short-term calculations almost always trump longer-term ones; the “what’s good for me” view is almost always more persuasive than the “what’s good for the party” view.

But there is a political case that the GOP needs to get immigration reform done now. The question is whether it will convince any of the Republicans sitting in Congress.

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