Republicans, business community struggle to frame 'Gang of Eight' immigration reform debate

Published: Wednesday, May 8 2013 10:50 p.m. MDT

FILE ? In this April 18, 2013, file photo Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., speaks at a Capitol Hill news conference with the Senate's "Gang of Eight", the bipartisan team pushing an immigration overhaul, to outline their immigration reform legislation that would creates a path for 11 million unauthorized immigrants to apply for U.S. citizenship. After radio host Rush Limbaugh told Rubio many conservatives "are scared to death" that the Republican Party "is committing suicide, that we're going to end up legalizing 9 million automatic Democrat voters," Rubio said the risk is worth taking. "Every political movement, conservatism included, depends on the ability to convince people that do not agree with you now to agree with you in the future,"he said. At right is Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, and at Rubio's left is Democrat Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

Associated Press

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Republican support for the most comprehensive immigration policy reform in decades could be in trouble.

When a tea party darling, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), pushes back against his friend and mentor, former Sen. Jim DeMint, it's an indication of how high the stakes and passions are surrounding the reform proposals now gestating on Capitol Hill.

Rubio spoke to reporters Tuesday, adamantly contesting a claim from the Heritage Foundation, now headed by DeMint, that the net cost to taxpayers of the immigration package championed by Rubio would total $6.3 trillion, causing a huge strain on an already overburdened entitlement system.

The report by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, threatened to slow or derail momentum for the bipartisan "Gang of Eight" immigration proposal, so named for the eight senators, four from each party, who crafted it.

The policy stakes are high, as this bill represents the first major immigration reform since 1986, and would effectively legalize 11 million undocumented immigrants currently in the country.

From a political standpoint, many see this as a battle for the soul of the Republican Party, still reeling from Mitt Romney's failure to attract more than 27 percent of the Hispanic vote in the 2012 presidential election. Many Republican elites concluded after November that the party must embrace and attempt to win over Hispanic voters, and that this required dramatic softening on the politics of immigration.

Whether this analysis is accurate, and whether the Republican base can be sold on it, both remain open questions.

The battle to shape GOP perceptions at the grassroots is so fierce that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, a vocal President Barack Obama supporter, is buying ads praising the conservative bona fides of pro-Gang of Eight Republicans. The New Republic calls this a “cynical, necessary strategy.”

With all the noise, it’s hard to see the real stakes in play. Are Republicans crazy not to embrace an amnesty package in pursuit of Hispanic votes? Or are they crazy not to? Is the average GOP voter softening on the issue, or is that wishful thinking by elites?

Two salvos

Last week two new salvos on this front included the Heritage Foundation report that trumpeted a $6.3 trillion lifetime cost of the proposed Gang of Eight immigration bill.

The Heritage Foundation's numbers were immediately contested, but they emboldened critics of the proposal in both houses of Congress.

“Their argument is based on a single premise, which I think is flawed,” Rubio said on Tuesday, The New York Times reported. “That is these people are disproportionately poor because they have no education and they will be poor for the rest of their lives in the U.S. Quite frankly, that’s not the immigration experience in the U.S. That’s certainly not my family’s experience in the U.S.”

The second stir came from Byron York at The Washington Examiner, who used a calculator built by The New York Times’ Nate Silver to demonstrate that even if Romney had won an utterly improbable 70 percent of the Hispanic vote last fall, he would still have lost the election.

In short, York argued, the conventional wisdom that the Hispanic vote cost Romney the election is wrong, and, in fact, the real culprit was disaffected white voters in key swing states who did not show up to vote.

"This is a topic that has a huge range of options that are being kicked around,” said Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah), noting that the Gang of Eight proposal is still in flux. "We just want to see what the Senate does and then take a look at it."

Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) was also reluctant to speculate on the fate of the bill.

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