Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) is part of a sizable but increasingly muted conservative… (Alex Brandon, Associated…)
WASHINGTON — It's not as if Republican Rep. Steve King missed the message from party leaders about how supporting an immigration overhaul could help boost the GOP's standing among Latino voters.
He just isn't buying it.
"I'm incredulous with the conclusion they drew when the sun came up on the morning of Nov. 7," the firebrand Iowa congressman said the other day, standing outside the Capitol. "They just said that Mitt Romney would be president-elect on that morning if he just hadn't said two words: self-deport."
It was a sparsely attended news conference: Just a handful of hard-line House Republicans protesting the immigration bill a Senate committee was poised to approve.
So it goes these days with the opposition to revamping the immigration system, a movement that has been more muted than six years ago when a similar effort successfully turned back a reform bill.
The opponents this time include a sizable coalition of tea party and conservative leaders, including many local-level talk radio hosts.
NumbersUSA, a group that has long fought to limit immigration, has run radio and television ads in more than a dozen states, seeking to pressure senators to vote against the bill. The organization's president, Roy Beck, brushes off the idea that opposition has waned, noting that polls suggest Americans have mixed feelings about granting citizenship to immigrants. "It seems lonely — just us and the American people," he said.
But the opponents face a much different landscape than six years ago. Not only are key Republicans not overtly attacking the proposal, but support appears much more solid among Democrats, who had also played a role in dashing earlier efforts.
The growing influence of the Latino electorate, which spurned Romney to help reelect President Obama, and the defeat of much of Arizona's strict anti-immigration law in the Supreme Court, "created a lot of running room for Republicans to come to the table," said Simon Rosenberg, president of NDN, a center-left think tank in Washington.
Republicans as well as Democrats have become more comfortable with offering legal status to an estimated 11 million people who have entered the U.S. illegally or stayed beyond their visas.
The lawmakers are being nudged along, in part, by the stories being told by young people brought to the United States as children who have become adults without legal status. These young adults, who call themselves "Dreamers," after the Dream Act, a failed legislative effort that would have offered them a route to citizenship, have given a compelling voice to a once largely unheard immigrant population.
Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, an immigration reform advocacy group, recalls that a "sort of death march" took hold of the 2007 legislative effort as both sides found reasons to back away.
"I don't think there are as many shaking Democrats today as there were in 2007," said Angela Kelley, vice president of immigration policy at the left-leaning Center for American Progress.
One other element has weighed heavily on both parties: the White House.
Obama used executive authority last summer to defer deportations of Dreamers who came forward and registered. It was, for many lawmakers, a turning point.
Democrats saw the move as a political win that helped give Obama a 44-percentage-point lead among Latinos over Romney in the election.
Republican leaders have since sought to persuade reluctant colleagues that the time has come for Congress to fix the immigration system, lest Obama take further action on his own — and Democrats seize a permanent advantage among the growing Latino electorate.
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) has privately pushed a bipartisan group of lawmakers to complete their work on the House's proposed immigration overhaul. "We're not going to be stampeded by the White House or stampeded by the president," he said last week.
King says that there are more Republican lawmakers on his side than the few who stood beside him on that sunny spring day and that he believes more will join to defeat the bill as voters learn about it.
In the NumbersUSA spots, a man's voice argues that an overhaul will allow too many legal immigrants into the U.S. who would then compete with out-of-work Americans for jobs.
The group has enlisted its 2 million members to corner lawmakers at home. "We're hoping to shame the senators: 'You've got these long lines of unemployed Americans, and you're going to pass this sort of bill?'" Beck said.
Like-minded Republican opponents also exist in the Senate, and so far not one beyond the four who helped draft the bill has fully endorsed the overhaul.
King predicted that over time, Republican leaders would join him.
"If they're not on our side," he said, "I'd suggest that they are convertibles."