Reporting from Washington — After years of courting Latino voters with a softer tone on immigration, Republican leaders in Congress have all but abandoned that posture, risking what remains of GOP support among the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population.
The latest example is the near-unanimous opposition by Senate Republicans to the Dream Act, a measure that provides a way for some illegal immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children to become citizens.
The bill once was seen as a bipartisan initiative that offered the GOP a bridge to Latino voters. But in a Senate debate last week, Republicans branded the measure as "amnesty," denouncing it as ripe for abuse.
The party's once solicitous outreach to Latino voters has been all but drowned out by a powerful grass-roots movement incensed over illegal immigration. GOP lawmakers are increasingly fearful of incurring the movement's wrath.
Republicans logged victories in last month's midterm election, relying on support from their core voters and disaffected independents. But the GOP approach to immigration may come back to haunt the party.
"The longer the Republican Party appears to be the party that is adamantly against the most important issues to the Latino community, the more they threaten any long-term attempts to create a political party that includes Latinos," said Jaime Regalado, executive director of the Edmund G. "Pat" Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State Los Angeles.
Republicans say they are simply listening to voters on the issue.
They point to the victories of several prominent Republican Latinos in last month's elections — including Sen.-elect Marco Rubio in Florida, the son of Cuban immigrants, who does not support the Dream Act — as evidence that Latinos aren't uniform in their opinions.
"There's no way I can go to the people in South Carolina and say, 'Let's pass the Dream Act,' when we've done nothing on the border and there's a raging war in Mexico," said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C). "Most Hispanics I talk to know that it's got to be comprehensive; they want the border security."
The bill now hangs in limbo in the Senate, where Sen. Harry Reid, the Democratic leader, has promised a vote before the end of the lame-duck congressional session.
Republican senators who voted for the Dream Act just three years ago have changed their positions. Others have avoided taking a stance, saying tax and spending issues are more important to them at the moment.
Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R- Utah) co-wrote the Dream Act nearly 10 years ago, but has turned against it. "Times have changed," said Antonia Ferrier, a spokeswoman for Hatch. "Our nation's unemployment rate is almost 10%, so Sen. Hatch believes the focus needs to be on righting our economic ship."
Hatch's cautious critique reveals the delicate balance some Republicans are trying to strike. Hatch is among elected officials now facing pressure from grass-roots groups unhappy with the GOP's record on immigration. Hatch's colleague from Utah, Sen. Robert F. Bennett, was ousted by "tea party" conservatives in his primary this year. Hatch could be next in 2012.
But Republicans must also be wary of a backlash from a group that will be crucial to the party's future, particularly in the West.
Nearly 40% of all Latinos in the U.S. are immigrants, and a vast majority of Latino voters — 85%, according to a recent poll by the Pew Hispanic Center — support creation of a pathway to citizenship for immigrants living in the country illegally.
That's left many Republicans searching for a middle position. In Congress last week, Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, lashed out at the way Democrats sought to bring the Dream Act to a vote. Other Republicans dismissed the effort as Reid's attempt to reward a constituency key to his victory last month.
Outside of Congress, presidential hopefuls and party leaders are exploring other ways to emphasize issues that resonate with Latinos — social issues, security and jobs.
Still, there are few Republicans advertising their support for the type of immigration revisions that won 22 GOP votes in the Senate in 2006, two years after a Republican White House made appealing to Latino voters a priority.
In 2004, President George W. Bush won about 40% of the Latino vote and set what some consider the bar for Republicans.
Since then, anti-immigration fervor has risen with an increase of violence near the border and a persistent economic downturn. Fewer politicians of either party are eager to pass a bill that critics cast as spurring competition for jobs and favoring illegal immigrants. In the House last week, 38 Democrats voted against the bill, which passed 216 to 198. Eight Republicans voted in favor.