HC-5, a drab, wood-paneled conference room in the Capitol basement, was quiet last Wednesday as Paul Ryan pushed for immigration reform. All eyes were on the Wisconsin Republican as he touted the economic benefits of bringing illegal immigrants into the work force. He assured his colleagues, who were clustered in cliques — moderates here, old bulls there — that stronger border security remains the leadership’s priority.
As Ryan spoke, freshman Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who was behind him in line, listened carefully. He was calm and upright, and unlike a handful of conservative rabble-rousers in the back, he didn’t sigh as Ryan made his points. Instead, he clasped his hands and focused on his coming speech. After Ryan stepped away, Cotton, a 36-year-old former Army officer, moved forward, and soon his clipped drawl filled the room.
The crowd of 200-plus Republicans took notice. From the start, Cotton’s message was a contrast with Ryan’s. He sliced into the Senate’s immigration bill and dismissed the idea of a compromise. He urged Republicans to oppose a conference with the Senate, and warned that any formal negotiations with the upper chamber would lead to disaster. He then turned to Speaker John Boehner, who was standing nearby, and advised him to tread carefully. For a moment, they engaged in a terse back-and-forth.
“We are not worlds apart from the Senate, we are galaxies apart,” Cotton told the speaker. Boehner responded that Cotton shouldn’t worry. “We’re not going to conference until we’re ready,” he said. The speaker coolly explained to Cotton that it’s important to pass legislation that reflects the position of House Republicans.
Looking on, Steve King of Iowa, long a member of the House’s anti-amnesty forces, smiled. He glanced at his friends, who smiled back. This rookie backbencher, a Harvard Law graduate, was good. “It’s so clear that he’s done the research and taken the time to understand the issue,” King tells me. “He’s also resilient, and not easily discouraged by people who disagree. Usually, you don’t see freshmen get too far out front, but he’s emerging, sooner rather than later, as a leader in this Congress.”
Conservative power brokers agree. Behind the scenes, they’re encouraging Cotton, at the eleventh hour of the immigration debate, to be King’s fresh-faced ally. Cotton’s friends say Republican consultants and movement figures, from talk-radio hosts to think-tank fellows, are constantly e-mailing and calling. They see Cotton not just as a partner but as the last, best hope for a wing of the party often dismissed as senescent.
“He’s certainly an Army ranger I wouldn’t want to mess with,” says Jeb Hensarling of Texas, the chairman of the Financial Services committee. “And in a very short time, he has made his mark. To a lot of senior members, he commands their respect.”
Cotton’s remarks at the closed-door meeting were only the beginning of his efforts. A day later, he published an essay in the Wall Street Journal, where he counseled Republicans to not hand any immigration legislation “off to a conference committee.” The House, he argued, should not go near a bill that includes a path to legalization. He also shrugged off the supposed pressure on Republicans to pass something.
Look for Cotton to continue to fight for a conservative, border-security-centric approach to immigration in the coming weeks. As Boehner and pro-reform heavyweights such as Ryan work to pass a series of piecemeal immigration bills, Cotton, King, and others will question whether that strategy makes sense. They’ll wonder aloud, on the House floor and on the airwaves — Cotton is a favorite of producers for Sunday morning talk shows — whether the GOP is walking into a trap set by the Senate’s Gang of Eight.
Cotton’s rapid ascent as a charismatic, brainy voice for Steve King’s coalition has surprised several leadership staffers, who had planned for months to use Ryan, one of the chamber’s more popular conservatives, as a means of wooing the right flank toward a modified path to legalization. They didn’t think a mostly unknown freshman would be competing with Ryan for the spotlight, both inside and outside the Capitol. Now, with Cotton regularly slamming immigration reform with the poise of Bill Clinton but the politics of Rush Limbaugh, their calculus has changed.