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Senators unveil bipartisan immigration plan, but opposition looms

The GOP's loss of Latino votes in November boosts the chances of bipartisan immigration reform, leading senators say, but conservatives raise doubts.

January 28, 2013|By Michael A. Memoli, Noam N. Levey and Brian Bennett, Washington Bureau
  • Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), left, and Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) confer at a news conference in which they expressed optimism about an immigration overhaul proposal.
Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), left, and Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) confer… (Saul Loeb, AFP/Getty Images )

WASHINGTON — As they announced their framework for comprehensive immigration reform, leading senators from both parties declared Monday that the politics of the long-stalled debate had shifted after Republican candidates failed to win significant support from the growing Latino electorate in November.

But many conservatives made clear they rejected that contention. They remain deeply skeptical of any plan that would create a way for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the country to become citizens.

"The last time we talked about this in 2007, it sounded very seductive. When we saw the details, it was clear it wouldn't work," Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said. Sessions said he was concerned that the Obama administration was not committed to securing the borders to thwart illegal immigration.

On the Senate floor, Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) sounded implacable. "We have history as a guide, and history suggests that this brand of comprehensive reform … is a recipe for failure," he said.

Twenty-two GOP senators who opposed the failed 2007 plan for immigration reform are still in the Senate, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. By contrast, just two of the 12 Republicans who backed it are still in Congress: Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

McCain, who worked on the new compromise, bluntly replied, "Elections," when asked what improved the outlook in Congress to pass an overhaul. His own history illustrates his point: He was the main GOP advocate for reform in 2007, but he backed off when he ran for president in 2008.

"The Republican Party is losing the support of our Hispanic citizens," McCain said at a news conference with four other senators. "We realize that there are many issues in which we think we are in agreement with our Hispanic citizens, but this is a preeminent issue with those citizens."

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who worked with McCain and others on the compromise, agreed that the political environment had shifted. "For the first time ever, there's more political risk in opposing immigration reform than in supporting it," he said.

The failure Republican candidates experienced with Latino voters in November has galvanized the attention of party strategists and many elected officials. Advocates for the reform plan hope that a strong bipartisan vote in the Senate, which Schumer predicted, will pressure the House to act.

The immigration blueprint unveiled Monday contains many similarities to the 2007 legislation, including a path to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally. But the architects of the current plan made a number of adjustments to try to satisfy liberal and conservative critics.

The framework, for example, includes additional steps to enforce border security, a longtime demand by many Republican lawmakers. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who worked on the plan and at times spoke in Spanish during Monday's news conference, later told a conservative radio host that he would "not support any law that does not ensure the enforcement things happen."

The support from Rubio, a potential presidential hopeful, is seen as particularly key in bringing others in his party along. But another Latino newcomer, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), said in a statement that he had "deep concerns with the proposed path to citizenship."

In the House, some Republicans who have been reluctant to pursue comprehensive reform welcomed the Senate outline, including House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), who issued a carefully worded response. But Republican resistance promises to be intense. Many represent districts where any proposal that could be characterized as "amnesty" for illegal immigrants sparks angry opposition.

"It's one thing for a senator who has a statewide electorate to be able to make the case on this issue. In the House, you have a different demographic base," said Luke Frans of Resurgent Republic, a conservative research group that has been closely studying the Latino vote.

House conservatives made clear Monday that nothing in the new proposal changed their minds.

"When you legalize those who are in the country illegally, it costs taxpayers millions of dollars, costs American workers thousands of jobs and encourages more illegal immigration," said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas). "By granting amnesty, the Senate proposal actually compounds the problem by encouraging more illegal immigration."

Smith was instrumental in stopping earlier attempts to overhaul the immigration system from his former perch as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. His successor, Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte (R-Va.), handled immigration cases as a private practice lawyer in Roanoke. His voting record on immigration is nearly identical to Smith's, but Goodlatte did not dismiss the proposal.

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