Associated Press
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)
Republicans, Democrats and independents all agree that now is the time for Congress to pass legislation that will help create American jobs, drive innovation, and keep our economy strong. —Jeremy Robbins, director of Partnership for a New American Economy

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.

"The bill's overall objectives are good," he said. “Securing the border, modernizing an antiquated visa system, developing our entry and exit system, and figuring out what to do about the 11 million. These are all good objectives.”

Lee's biggest objection to the current proposal is that it "holds hostage" broadly supported fixes such as border security and better visa access to qualified workers, by squeezing them into a much more contentious solution for the current wave of immigrants who entered the country illegally.

The biggest fear among Republicans, Lee said, is the specter of the 1986 amnesty. "They said we are just going to legalize everyone who is already here, but this is the end. Once and for all we are going to secure the border, and fix the underlying problem. That just never happened, and the fear is that this is exactly what is going to happen again, unless we secure the border first."

Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) made it clear in an email that he does not view the Gang of Eight proposal as a finished product, but rather as “a way to continue this dialogue and debate. But I've consistently said that we need to do first things first. Real border security should be the first step of immigration reform.

“Until we can say with some certainty that our borders are truly secure, we will never really be able to truly address immigration,” Bishop said. “To the degree the Gang of Eight's proposal moves us down that path of border security first, it can be helpful in furthering this discussion.”

Democratic advantage?

Fears that the Gang of Eight immigration proposal contains enormous and one-sided electoral implications grew last month when Politico ran an analysis claiming that Democrats would make out like electoral bandits.

“Key swing states that Obama fought tooth and nail to win — like Florida, Colorado and Nevada — would have been comfortably in his column. And the president would have come very close to winning Arizona,” Politico noted.

“Republican Mitt Romney, by contrast, would have lost the national popular vote by 7 percentage points, 53 percent to 46 percent, instead of the 4-point margin he lost by in 2012, and would have struggled even to stay competitive in GOP strongholds like Texas, which he won with 57 percent of the vote.”

Last week Rubio, the leading Republican behind the bill, quickly took issue with the Politico analysis, launching a fact versus myth website. He was joined last week with vocal support from Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), chairman of the House Budget Committee and a conservative icon, who has also spoken out in support of the bill.

Elsewhere, business leaders were putting on a full-court press to reassure Republicans that supporting the immigration push was popular on the right.

Another pushback on the Politico thesis was offered by Jonathan Capehart of The Washington Post, who argued that Republicans have much to gain among Latino voters. Capehart cited survey data that shows that while Republicans claim only 18 percent of Latino voters 54 percent describe themselves as conservative. Thus, he argues that these should be available for GOP recruitment.

Business community

Late last month the business community opened another front in the battle to shape grassroots views of the immigration policy push with a new poll that apparently shows Republican voters strongly supporting the basic pillars of the Gang of Eight proposal.

The nationwide survey, sponsored by the Partnership for a New American Economy, found that 67 percent of Republicans and 74 percent of Americans supported the Gang of Eight proposal.

If it seems strange that Republicans supported the bill almost as strongly as Democrats and independents, maybe it was because the survey emphasized enforcement measures in explaining the bill:

“A bipartisan group of senators recently introduced legislation to reform the immigration system," the question read. "The plan establishes border security measures focused on high-risk areas of the Southern border, requires illegal immigrants to pass multiple criminal background checks, pay fines, learn English and pay taxes before getting in line for citizenship, makes E-Verify mandatory for all employers, and creates a new work visa program that regulates immigration according to unemployment. Would you say you support or oppose this plan to reform the immigration system?"

"This survey is further evidence that there is a broad, bipartisan consensus for comprehensive immigration reform and the Gang of Eight's bill is widely viewed as the best way to achieve it,” said Jeremy Robbins, director of Partnership for a New American Economy, in a statement.

“Republicans, Democrats and independents all agree that now is the time for Congress to pass legislation that will help create American jobs, drive innovation, and keep our economy strong,” Robbins added.