President Obama’s remarks on immigration reform, delivered Tuesday at a campaign-style event in Las Vegas, were not overtly partisan. However, his message to congressional Republicans was perfectly clear: Get with the program, or suffer politically.
Republicans are wary of the president’s call to “finally put this issue [of immigration reform] behind us” by not allowing it to “get bogged down in endless debate.” For one, they are eager to have that debate, which they believe has only just begun. Obama’s remarks did not inspire much enthusiasm.
Republicans in both chambers remain cautious in their approach, and are still debating amongst themselves as to how to proceed. But aides warn that Obama could ultimately sink bipartisan reform efforts by inserting himself into the debate and seeking to politicize the issue.
“We hope the president is careful not to drag the debate to the left and ultimately disrupt the difficult work that is ahead in the House and Senate,” said Brendan Buck, spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio.).
Many are skeptical that Obama, and Senate Democrats in particular, are especially eager for a bipartisan resolution on immigration reform. “We’re not going to get immigration done this year,” a conservative GOP aide told National Review Online. “Let’s cut the bullshit. This is about 2014 and 2016.”
Tellingly, Obama’s own framework for immigration reform, released Tuesday, does not include the one element that nearly every Republican has described as a deal breaker: a so-called enforcement trigger that would make any effort to provide illegal immigrants with a pathway to citizenship contingent on verifiable improvements in border security and enforcement measures.
The Senate framework included such a measure, and Senator Marco Rubio (R., Fla.), a leading member of the bipartisan effort, has been adamant that he would not sign on to a final bill that does not require border security and enhanced enforcement measures as a binding precondition for legalization.
“I am concerned by the president’s unwillingness to accept significant enforcement triggers before current undocumented immigrants can apply for a green card,” Rubio said in a statement. “Without such triggers in place, enforcement systems will never be implemented and we will be back in just a few years dealing with millions of new undocumented people in our country.”
“If one thing was clear from Obama’s speech it’s that he’s more concerned with the next election than he is with solving a major problem,” said another Republican aide. “Marco Rubio is the only one who is leading right now.”
Indeed, Rubio has emerged as a credible advocate on the issue, and has been touring the conservative media circuit — Sean Hannity, Mark Levin, Rush Limbaugh, and others — passionately defending his position in an effort to persuade his skeptics. It is a contrast that could really distinguish the senator in the eyes of the American public. “This episode is only going to make people fall in love with Marco Rubio that much more, and want to move on from Barack Obama that much faster,” said the GOP aide.
However, that sentiment is not universally held among Republicans. Some conservatives worry that Rubio is headlining what it sure to be another failed “amnesty” campaign, and wonder if he is already experiencing some “buyer’s remorse.” Republicans ought to be extremely hesitant, warns a conservative aide, to embrace an effort spearheaded by Senator Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.), the Democratic messaging guru, and Senator Michael Bennet (D., Colo.), chairman of the Senate Democratic campaign operation.
For the moment, most Republicans are withholding judgment until the details of immigration reform legislation can be fleshed out over the next several weeks. They too are keenly aware of the electoral implications of acting, or not acting, on what has become a charged political issue.
GOP reform proponents are urging the party to act now on immigration or risk what could be a permanent backlash from Hispanic voters. Senator John McCain (R., Ariz.), a long-time reform advocate, told reporters Tuesday that his colleagues were reacting favorably to the Senate framework because “they know how to read election results.”
Others are more skeptical. Republicans should “take a deep breath” before rushing into a “grand bargain” with Democrats, urged one Senate GOP aide. “Don’t walk the plank on immigration because Romney only got 29 percent of the Hispanic vote, and sell out on deeply held conservatives principles to bump that up to 33 percent,” the aide said.