Karl Rove may be trying to quell conservative concerns that his new political group is really an effort to crush the tea party. But actions will speak louder than words – and already, Mr. Rove's group may have a test case on its hands.
Rove's Conservative Victory Project has a stated goal of making sure only electable candidates emerge victorious from GOP primaries. But he told Fox News Tuesday: "This is not tea party versus the establishment."
He is exactly the kind of candidate that, in theory, Rove's group would want to weed out. Ultra-conservative on both social and fiscal matters, Congressman Broun has amassed a reputation for making inflammatory and controversial statements during his time in Congress. A doctor, he gained national attention last fall when he said at a sportsman's banquet that "all that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and the big-bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell." At the same event, he also said he believed Earth was less than 9,000 years old and was created in six days.
A member of the Tea Party Caucus, Broun ran unopposed in the last election, but some 4,000 voters in his district wrote in "Charles Darwin" on the ballot. He sits on the House Science Committee, where former Rep. Todd Akin – whose infamous remarks about rape and pregnancy led to a GOP Senate loss last fall in Missouri, and who has been held up as a model of the type of candidate Rove's new group would like to squash – also happened to serve.
Back in 2008, Broun compared Obama's proposal for a new civilian reserve security force to "what Hitler did in Nazi Germany," telling the Associated Press: "I'm not comparing [Obama] to Adolf Hitler. What I'm saying is there is the potential of going down that road."
And last month, Broun told The Atlanta Journal Constitution that "the only Constitution that Barack Obama upholds is the Soviet constitution, not this one. He has no concept of this one, though he claimed to be a constitutional lawyer."
Lately, with the Georgia Senate race clearly in his sights, he's taken some conspicuously far-right stands: Not only has he voted against all of the recent fiscal deals, but he was one of a handful of members to vote against John Boehner for speaker. (He told reporters that, under Mr. Boehner's leadership, Congress had "failed to address the root of our nation's fiscal crisis.") Instead, he cast his vote for former Rep. Allen West of Florida, another member with a penchant for bomb-throwing.
Georgia is, of course, a solidly red state – one where Democrats typically would have little chance of winning an open Senate race. But, just as some of the upper Southern states such as North Carolina and Virginia have recently been trending more purple, many analysts believe changing demographics may at some point soon start to give Democrats a better chance in the Peach State.
If Broun were to emerge from what is likely to be a crowded primary field as the state's Republican Senate nominee, it could give Democrats a decent shot at a takeover in what otherwise be hostile territory. As Georgia Democratic strategist Stefan Turkheimer put it to Real Clear Politics last month: “In order for [a Democratic victory] to occur, you have to get a decent candidate on the Dem side. But you also have to get someone coming out of the Flat Earth Society primary on the Republican side, who’s seen nationally as being ridiculous.”
Broun could be that "someone." We await the verdict of Rove and his new group.
Sure, 2016 is years away, and it seems awfully early to be speculating about who's likely to run, let alone who's likely to win. But it's also true that this is a crucial time for those considering bids to try to build buzz, woo potential supporters and staffers, and – maybe most important – set themselves apart from the field.
So far, this pre-primary stage has clearly been good for Senator Rubio. He's currently the face of the bipartisan immigration reform effort moving through Congress, which appears to have a good chance of passing. And as a young Hispanic in a party that is now openly discussing its need to improve its standing among Latino voters, he has a strong claim to be the kind of leader the party needs going forward. He's been winning glowing praise from conservative opinion-shapers such as talk-radio hosts Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin – and that's despite the fact that many of them don't particularly like his immigration plan.
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By contrast, Representative Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, has lately been most closely associated with 1) the losing presidential ticket last November and 2) the ongoing fiscal battles on the Hill – which have not exactly done wonders for the GOP's public image. True, Ryan was credited with negotiating the short-term debt-ceiling extension and with talking fellow House Republicans off the "fiscal cliff." But by voting for that deal (which, tellingly, Rubio voted against), he probably didn't win a lot of new fans among the party's conservative base.
Then there's the – for lack of a better term – coolness gap. This week, Rubio was the guest at a forum sponsored by BuzzFeed at a D.C. bar. He discussed, among other things, the relative merits of ’90s rappers Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls (or The Notorious B.I.G.), noting at one point that there was a Tupac song that mentioned Bob Dole and Bill Clinton. (Actual quote: "I think Tupac's lyrics are probably more insightful, in my opinion – with all apologies to Biggie fans.") He also casually threw in Pitbull's real name ("Armando").
Compare that with Ryan's appearance at a recent round-table discussion sponsored by The Wall Street Journal, which Politico called "a wonky affair," with Ryan spending "90 minutes in the budget weeds." Asked about how he dealt with last November's loss, Ryan said: "Clearly I thought about the woulda-coulda-shouldas, but I already processed that thinking after the election and during the holidays." It's one thing to say he didn't want to dwell on the disappointment – but it's hard to imagine too many presidential contenders passing up the opportunity to show some emotion by saying they'd already "processed" their thinking on that matter.
To make matters worse, on Tuesday, Politico posted a long piece speculating that the former vice-presidential nominee may opt not to run for president in 2016 after all, instead focusing on "amassing more power within Congress." The piece quoted a "conservative who recently spent time with Ryan" as saying that the congressman "has no interest in the sheer grind of campaigning.” The source concluded bluntly: “It’s hard to see him having ‘what it takes.’ ”
That's a dramatic turnaround for a politician who not long ago was hailed as the future of the Republican Party and, even before November's loss, was seen by many as a 2016 front-runner. (As recently as last October, he was the subject of a lengthy New York Times Magazine profile auspiciously titled "Paul Ryan Can't Lose.")
But in some ways, the prediction that Ryan may take a pass on a White House bid makes sense. For one thing, the House is not a typical springboard to the presidency (the last candidate to do it successfully was James Garfield, in 1880). And the idea that Ryan may not enjoy the campaign trail fits with the "wonkish" personality often portrayed in the media – of a guy who's obsessed with policy and less comfortable with the glad-handing and often-superficial demands of presidential politics.
On the other hand, it's also possible that Ryan's interest in a 2016 run hasn't really dimmed much at all. He still has an active network of support – including many former Romney backers who have expressed willingness to get behind a Ryan campaign. Also, few politicians can stay in the glare of the spotlight for long without taking some hits and showing some blemishes.
More to the point, in presidential politics – as in life – sometimes playing hard to get can be a very good way of making yourself more desirable. By letting Rubio assume the front-runner's mantle, and the scrutiny that goes with it, Ryan may then be able to gin up interest by professing disinterest – all the while still keeping his options open.
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Is the Republican Party's internal warfare about to get a whole lot worse?
Over the weekend, The New York Times's Jeff Zeleny reported that the Republican establishment is taking quick strides – via a new political group created by strategist Karl Rove – to fix what they've taken to calling their "Todd Akin problem." They'll be giving support in Republican primaries to the candidates they see as most electable.
Former Rep. Todd Akin (R), as you may recall, was the 2012 Missouri Senate candidate who lost what was widely seen as a winnable race after he said that cases of "legitimate rape" rarely resulted in pregnancy. The remarks were widely ridiculed – including by many in Mr. Akin's own party – and have been cited repeatedly by party bigwigs as examples of "stupid," self-inflicted wounds that cost Republicans a chance at controlling the Senate.
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Predictably, however, Mr. Rove's effort is already being met with cries of outrage from tea party groups and others who see it as a misguided slap in the face to the base. They view Rove as a faux-conservative strategist who took the party in the wrong direction throughout the Bush years and spent an epic amount of money in 2012, only to see most of his candidates lose.
Conservative pundit Michelle Malkin called the move "doubling down on stupid" and added: "Who needs Obama and his Team Chicago to destroy the Tea Party when you’ve got Rove and his big government band of elites?" Likewise, RedState's Erick Erickson writes: "I dare say any candidate who gets this group’s support should be targeted for destruction by the conservative movement. They’ve made it really easy now to figure out who the terrible candidates will be in 2014."
The question is what, exactly, the GOP establishment thinks its "Todd Akin problem" really is. Are they just hoping to weed out clumsy, unprofessional candidates who are prone to saying kooky-sounding things? Or is this an effort to bring the party back to the center – meaning, will they target those whose views on issues like abortion (no exceptions in cases of rape and incest) are out of the mainstream?
Our sense is that, in theory at least, it's more the former than the latter.
As many on the right have pointed out, for every Akin out there, there's a tea party-backed candidate with equally conservative views who won a contested primary and went on to win the general election.
Politico quotes a spokesman for the conservative Club for Growth – which has been active in supporting far-right candidates in primaries – as saying: “[Rove and his donors] are welcome to support the likes of Arlen Specter, Charlie Crist, and David Dewhurst. We will continue to proudly support the likes of Pat Toomey, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz." Senators Toomey, Rubio, and Cruz are all strong conservatives who either defeated or chased out of the party their more moderate GOP opponents (Messrs. Specter, Crist, and Dewhurst) and have gone on to become leading Republican voices in the US Senate.
Notably, there is not a whole lot of daylight between, say, Cruz and Akin when it comes to policy. Cruz, of Texas, who was just elected last November, is opposed to abortion in all cases except when the life of the mother is in jeopardy – meaning that, like Akin, he would not allow exceptions in cases of rape and incest.
But in terms of pure political skills, the gulf is glaringly wide. During the 2012 campaign, then-candidate Cruz was asked to comment on Indiana Senate candidate Richard Mourdock's controversial assertion that when a pregnancy occurs as a result of rape, it is "something that God intended to happen" and therefore should not be terminated. Cruz simply refused to take the bait, calling it an "unfortunate distraction" and saying he wouldn't engage in hypotheticals. End of story.
The point is, we doubt Rove's group would want to focus on candidates like Cruz – a rising-star Hispanic with degrees from Princeton and Harvard who electrified the base with his speech at the Republican National Convention and has remained in the spotlight ever since. Also, based on what many conservatives are saying, there aren't many in the party who would really be opposed to efforts to block clearly substandard candidates like Akin from getting nominated.
But most candidates aren't obviously in the Akin or Cruz category. And while everyone can agree on losers and winners in hindsight, there often isn't the same kind of consensus during the heat of the campaign. What one side sees as a dangerous tendency toward "stupid" statements, the other may see as a rare and admirable form of "truth telling."
Which means the party may be in for some epic primary battles.
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President Obama on Monday is in Minnesota pushing his proposals to curb US gun violence. He’ll visit the Minneapolis Police Department’s Special Operations Center and make remarks promoting a renewed ban on assault weapons and expanded background checks on gun buyers.
It’s the first time Mr. Obama has traveled outside Washington as he tries to build support for his approach to gun control, the Associated Press notes. Why Minnesota? That’s a long way to fly in Air Force One for a speech and photo ops that could easily have been done in states closer to D.C.
The short answer is that Minnesota is a reliably blue state, and Minneapolis officials have taken steps to attempt to curb gun violence that Obama would like to duplicate on the national level. So it gives him a good backdrop, so to speak, from which to deliver words aimed at the nation as a whole.
"Minneapolis is a city that has taken important steps to reduce gun violence and foster a conversation in the community about what further action is needed,” the White House said in a statement prior to the trip.
Beginning in 2008, the city has allocated more resources toward at-risk youth and the rehabilitation of young criminals, according to the White House. Minneapolis hosted a regional summit on gun violence in January, and Minneapolis Police Chief Janee Harteau is among the officials that the White House has tapped in its ongoing attempts to figure out what further gun-related measures the president should push.
The longer answer is that Minnesota is simply the first stop as the administration mounts a public-diplomacy campaign on an issue fraught with emotions on both sides.
The Senate Judiciary Committee will begin drawing up some kind of gun legislation this month, and thus now is the time for Obama to try to put some sort of grass-roots pressure on lawmakers. According to The Wall Street Journal, it’s likely the legislation will include most of what Obama wants, including universal background checks and new limits on high-capacity magazines.
But note that’s “most,” not all. The Journal adds that the bill may not contain a renewal of the ban on assault weapons, in part because of lack of support from Senate majority leader Harry Reid.
Obama clearly wants to continue pressing the assault weapons ban and other measures before Senate action makes that something of a moot point. And now may be a good time to try to rally public opinion. The tragedy in Newtown, Conn., appears to have moved the needle on overall public opinion about gun control in a way previous mass shootings have not.
According to an interesting post in The Monkey Cage political blog, there’s more than poll evidence that people are still talking about gun control weeks after Newtown. A New York University analysis of more than 5 million tweets shows sharp spikes in social-media discussion of gun policy-related keywords.
“What’s interesting about this is that it provides at least some rudimentary evidence that it is not just those in the media that are continuing to talk about topics such as gun control; it is the mass public as well,” writes NYU politics professor Joshua Tucker.
Over the years, the tone of these game-day conversations has varied widely: In 2009, NBC's Matt Lauer – who also got the 2012 interview – took a lighter approach with the newly-elected president, asking Obama about living with his mother-in-law and whether he had established bedtime routines with his girls. In 2010, CBS's Katie Couric focused her questions on policy matters like health care and the economy (with one obligatory question about which team he thought would win the game). In the 2011 interview, Fox News's Bill O'Reilly asked Obama repeatedly how it felt to have so many Americans "hate" him.
So what should Obama expect this time? You never know – but we'd anticipate a serious grilling.
We say this not only because of Mr. Pelley's reputation as an aggressive journalist, but also because this just happens to be the second interview Obama has given to CBS News in a little more than a week. The other, of course, was the widely panned interview Steve Kroft conducted with Obama and outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for "60 Minutes."
The "60 Minutes" interview – which Mr. Kroft made clear had been the White House's idea, and for which he'd only been given 30 minutes – was slammed as a puff piece by Republicans, as well as by many in the mainstream media, for focusing largely on the relationship between the president and his onetime rival. A number of critics called it little more than a "Hillary 2016" ad.
Over at the conservative Breitbart website, Larry O'Connor wrote that Kroft's sole question on Benghazi was "the journalistic equivalent of 'If you were a Libyan tree, what kind of tree would you be?' " And Ben Shapiro dubbed it "a 2016 presidential announcement masquerading as a lovefest masquerading as an interview," adding: "This wasn't 60 Minutes. It was Sixty Shades of Gray."
Notably, one of the most savage critiques of that interview came from the left-leaning Atlantic, whose Conor Friedersdor wrote afterward that Obama and Clinton "benefited from 60 Minutes gravitas while answering questions better suited to Ellen."
In the same piece, Mr. Friedersdorf specifically contrasted Kroft's interview with an interview Pelley previously conducted with President George W. Bush, and called the comparison "stunning." He wrote: "I won't speculate about personal ideological bias. It's possible that Pelley is just a much better journalist than Kroft. I will say that there is a glaring double standard in the coverage that 60 Minutes has afforded the two presidents."
Given all that, we're betting that Pelley may feel some pressure to display an extra-tough, take-no-prisoners-approach in his upcoming interview. Obama had better be forewarned.
Secretary of Defense nominee Chuck Hagel is getting some very bad reviews for his performance before the Senate Armed Services Committee Thursday. Mr. Hagel seemed unprepared for tough questions from Sen. John McCain and other Republicans and at times did not seem to grasp existing Obama administration policy.
“The result was a nominee who searched for words like he was trapped in a closet, grasping for a dropped flashlight,” wrote Slate’s Dave Weigel in a fairly typical summation after the hearing was (mercifully) over.
Senator McCain, a former friend and fellow GOP maverick, hammered Hagel over the latter’s nonsupport of the Bush administration’s military "surge" during the Iraq war. Hagel twisted and turned to avoid answering “yes or no” as to whether this disavowal had been proved wrong by history.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina went after Hagel for his perceived squishiness on US support for Israel. Hagel seemed flustered by Senator Graham’s demand that he name one lawmaker who’d been intimidated by the “Israeli lobby.”
Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas did something with video clips of a Hagel appearance on Al Jazeera, while other Republicans went after him for signing on to a think-tank report that held out zero nuclear weapons as a laudable goal.
Overall, Hagel looked taken aback. There’s been “more attention paid to words in the last eight weeks than I ever thought possible,” he said.
Does this matter? The conventional wisdom is that it does not. Democrats control 55 votes in the Senate, and they’re a majority on the Senate Armed Services Committee, so Hagel's ride to the E-Ring seems open from here. As long as the party stays united, President Obama will get his pick for the Pentagon, right?
Plus, the issues Hagel fumbled – Iraq, Israeli relations, nuclear weapons – are for the most part not high on voter interest lists.
We’re not sure it will be that easy, though. After all, it’s possible GOP senators will make it clear that they may filibuster the nomination. That would be unusual – the Senate normally gives presidents the benefit of the doubt for executive branch nominees – but not unprecedented. If that’s the case, Hagel will actually need 60 votes. Five Republicans will have to jump on board.
Here’s why those five votes might be tough to tote up: The GOP may feel that Hagel is a teetering nominee and decide to make a stand. After all, the very thing Hagel appeared bad at – answering questions in front of cameras – is a basic skill necessary to be a national politician. That’s why his statement that he was surprised his words were parsed so closely is hard to fathom. That’s what Washington does! Yet Hagel was taken aback. It’s as if he’d taken a trip to Rome and after coming back complained that all the food there was Italian.
Plus, the secretary of Defense has to manage tough customers. The military services are headed by generals and admirals who have spent years learning their business and are backed by vast bureaucracies. Trust us – they’re already trying to figure out how then can get this Hagel guy to go on a long morale-boosting tour of bases that are very far away.
So conservatives are beside themselves.
It’s more likely than not that Hagel still gets confirmed. But he needs to buckle up – the road before he gets there may be bumpy after all.
As Washington engages in a fierce debate over gun control, does it matter whether President Obama has personally ever shot a gun? Would it change things to learn that he'd fired a weapon a total of five times in his life? Or 50? Or 500?
It may have seemed at the time like a casual, offhand remark – Obama certainly didn't claim he's a hunter or a real gun enthusiast (though he made clear he has great respect for those who are). But it was immediately challenged by many who smelled, if not an outright falsehood, then a likely exaggeration.
Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R) of Tennessee challenged the president to a skeet-shooting contest. Reporters pressed White House Press Secretary Jay Carney for details of the president's adventures in skeet shooting – or better yet, a photograph of Obama engaged in said activity – to no avail. The New Republic briefly posted what it believed was an official photo of Obama wielding a gun at Camp David, but that turned out to be an Internet hoax.
The Washington Post's Fact Checker even weighed in, saying "we searched high and low through hundreds of news reports to see if there was ever any other mention of Obama engaged in skeet shooting," but reported being unable to find a single one. It gave the matter a "verdict pending" ruling.
Eventually, Fox News tracked down one Camp David visitor who said they had, in fact, witnessed the president skeet shooting "a couple times" at most, during a traditional competition with Marine guards. The source added: "He stayed for about five minutes and couldn't leave fast enough."
So why has this subject received so much attention, and does it really matter? On one level, it's a tempest in a teapot. As the Post notes, skeet shooting is a common activity at Camp David. And nothing in Obama's statement has been proved false. Obama didn't claim to be a huge fan of skeet shooting, or even particularly good at it. In his response, he was careful to use "we" rather than "I," adding, "not the girls, but oftentimes guests of mine go up there." The phrase "all the time" could, technically speaking, have referred mostly to his guests rather than him personally.
On the other hand, as we've seen repeatedly, nothing causes politicians more trouble than when they are caught pandering to segments of the population by trying to appear to be something they're not. Remember when Mitt Romney talked about his love of shooting "varmints" during the 2012 campaign? Or when John Kerry went duck hunting in a borrowed camouflage jacket, with a borrowed shotgun, back in 2004? Both incidents probably wound up doing the candidates more harm than good.
During his political career, Obama has mostly avoided those embarrassingly fake "regular guy" comments and photo-ops – though he did have a memorably bad bowling incident during the 2008 campaign. But the gun debate has, like it or not, a cultural component that complicates the battle for the president. Maybe Obama's own lack of experience with guns shouldn't be relevant, but separating the personal from the political isn't always possible.
That brings us back to our original thought exercise: Imagine if Obama had told The New Republic that he'd never fired a gun. It's hard to see how that wouldn't have become fodder for the National Rifle Association, and possibly done real damage to the president's efforts to push for gun-control legislation.
There's a reason the "Nixon goes to China" formulation is so often a necessary component of tough Washington battles. A leader who goes against his own side on a controversial issue has instant credibility that no one on the other side could ever match. Many gun owners don't trust Obama on the gun issue –even if, in theory, they might themselves be in favor of tighter regulations – simply because he's not "one of them."
But as we saw this week, letting them know he's gone skeet shooting a few times is not going to minimize that divide. Given the reaction Obama's comment has inspired, it might have even exacerbated it.
As lawmakers move forward in crafting an immigration reform bill, one widespread assumption has been that demographic political pressures – specifically, the Republican Party's need to win over more Latino voters, or risk becoming a permanent minority – are giving this effort a greater chance of passage than any in recent years.
Arizona Sen. John McCain (R) minced no words on Monday when unveiling the broad outlines agreed to by a bipartisan group of eight senators: "The Republican Party is losing the support of our Hispanic citizens," he said. "And we realize this is an issue in which we are in agreement with our Hispanic citizens."
But increasingly, many others are arguing that fixing the GOP's so-called "Hispanic problem" won't be nearly that simple – and that Republicans shouldn't go along with immigration reform purely in an effort to win more votes, since that alone is unlikely to convert many Latinos to the Republican Party. Tellingly, one GOP Senate aide spelled out this political calculus for The National Review: "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."
According to this line of analysis, even if a comprehensive immigration bill passes, Hispanics are likely to continue to align themselves politically with Democrats because of greater ideological compatibility on a whole range of issues – the biggest of which is a more liberal vision of government that includes support for more services.
Writing in The Washington Post this week, Jamelle Bouie argued: "Latinos are more liberal than the median voter. According to the most recent Pew poll on these questions (released last year), 75 percent of Hispanics say they support bigger government with more services, compared to 41 percent of the general population."
Nor is it just support for bigger government drawing Hispanics to the Democrats. Over at National Journal, Michael Catalini points out that pre-election polling showed Latinos preferred President Obama over Mitt Romney on everything from the economy to foreign policy to women's issues. He adds: "Even on social issues where there is perceived to be a natural fit among religious Hispanic voters and the GOP, a divide exists. A majority of Hispanic voters now back gay marriage, according to a Pew Research Center Poll, for instance."
Increasingly, this argument – that passing a comprehensive immigration bill isn't likely to help Republicans win over Hispanic voters – is being echoed by those on the right who oppose reform.
Talk radio host Rush Limbaugh, in an interview Tuesday with Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (R), said he saw little political upside for Republicans in offering a pathway to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants, but a potentially huge benefit for Democrats, asking: "If 70 percent of the Hispanic vote went Republican, do you think the Democrats would be for any part of this legislation?"
So who's right? Those arguing that Republicans need to pass immigration reform because they need to win more Hispanic support, or those arguing that the bill won't really do anything to achieve that goal?
Frankly, probably both. Immigration reform alone won't create a new generation of Republican Hispanics. But for the GOP to continue to be seen as the party that's blocking reform is a political liability that Republicans can't afford any longer. And even if a bill only moves a relatively small number of votes in the short term, it still could be an essential component of a longer-term image makeover for the GOP, into a party that's more inclusive and minority-friendly.
As Senator Rubio, one of the group of eight senators working together to craft a bill, told Limbaugh: "Our argument about limited government is always harder to sell than a government program." But by getting the immigration issue out of the way, Republicans may have an easier time reaching out to Hispanics on economic matters – where Rubio believes there is a great deal of natural sympathy.
"I see it every day firsthand from people that have been here about eight to 10 years," he said. "All of a sudden, they have their own business, they have a bunch of permits that they have to comply with, a bunch of complicated laws. Their taxes just went up a couple of weeks ago even though President Obama has been saying it's only gonna go up on the rich – and the light bulb is going off that ... Big Government means less opportunity for them."
If nothing else, passing immigration reform may create enough goodwill to give Republicans like Rubio a better chance to try to sell that vision.
On Monday a bipartisan group of eight senators unveiled a proposed overhaul of the US immigration system. The plan includes both increased border enforcement and an eventual path to citizenship for many of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants already in the country. Yet some important details of the effort remain undefined. According to what we know now, how would the immigration overhaul work?
We’ll give you a stripped-down, “Immigration 101” version of the plan so you can follow debate on the issue in the days and weeks ahead.
First, the senatorial plan calls for devoting increased resources to what it calls “the basic governmental function of securing our borders." Specifically, it calls for increasing the use of drones and other electronic surveillance equipment, improving radio interoperability, and in general raising the number of agents at and between US border crossings.
“The purpose is to substantially lower the number of successful illegal border crossings while continuing to facilitate commerce," says the proposal.
Second, the plan calls for completion of a system capable of tracking whether people who enter the United States via temporary visas have left the country before their visas expire. Most surveys find that overstays range from 31 to 57 percent of those in the country illegally, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Third, it would establish a commission of Southwestern governors, attorneys general, and community leaders “to monitor the progress of securing our border and to make a recommendation regarding when the bill’s security measures outlined in the legislation are completed."
The actual importance of this commission is unclear, as we’ll see in a moment.
Fourth, this approach to the problem would require individuals who are currently here illegally to register with the government while the security measures are being put in place. Those who pass a background check designed to weed out actual criminals, and who pay a fine and settle all back taxes, would earn a probationary legal status.
Again, this would occur simultaneously with all the more-drones-along-the-Rio-Grande stuff. There’s been some confusion about that.
Fifth, citizenship! After the enforcement measures have been completed, those immigrants on probationary legal status could stand in the back of the line to get a green card and eventual US citizenship. They would not earn these coveted items until everyone who has played by the rules and is already legally waiting has been taken care of.
“Our purpose is to ensure that no one who has violated America’s immigration laws will receive preferential treatment as they relate to those individuals who have complied with the law,” states the proposal.
(Hmm. Haven’t they already received preferential treatment via the probationary legal status thing? What’s the difference between that and a green card? Isn’t legal status, probationary or not, what most illegal immigrants really want? Those are questions the plan’s proponents have yet to address.)
Now, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and some other Republicans are saying that the border commission plays a key role here, and that no current illegal immigrant will be able to emerge from probationary status until the panel says the border is secure. That’s unacceptable to many Democrats, who worry that Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) and others will simply refuse to issue that certification, blocking progress for the foreseeable future.
“The final decision will be made by the secretary of Homeland Security,” said Senator McCain.
It’s possible that this could be a highly contentious issue within the whole immigration debate going forward.
“This question is viewed as critical by people on both sides of the debate. Yet Senators appear to want to keep the answer to this question vague. Which tells us something about the politics of this fight – and about just how difficult the prospects for reform remain,” writes Greg Sargent on his left-leaning Washington Post Plum Line blog.
Other possible flash points include the plan’s favored treatment of agricultural workers, who get to stand in line ahead of many others. (So would undocumented children brought here by their parents, mirroring what President Obama has already ordered via executive action.)
The plan also calls for an “effective” system that allows employers to verify their employees’ immigration status. Presumably this would be either an update or a replacement of the current E-Verify government effort.
Currently, use of E-Verify is not mandatory for most employers. Sen. Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois said Monday that the Senate immigration plan would “require employers to verify that all their employees are legal and make sure that there’s a means of verification that is quick and accurate."
Some opponents of the Senate effort question whether any such system will ever be fully implemented.
“E-Verify is the main enforcement bait the open-borders crowd holds out to attract naïve conservatives to back amnesty,” writes Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies.
Finally, the Senate plan also calls for the issuance of automatic green cards to anyone who earns an advanced degree in science, engineering, math, or technology at a US university.
So there you have it. It’s a sweeping plan that for now is just general enough to attract widespread support. The real fights will occur over the details of this or any other immigration plan that gets serious consideration in Congress.
(Updated at 2 p.m. EDT, after Senator Rubio spoke with talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh.)
As one of four Republicans in the group of eight senators behind the bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform plan outlined Monday, as well as one of the party's most-buzzed-about potential White House contenders, Senator Rubio arguably has the most to gain – or lose – politically from the effort.
If the bill gets through, it could mark an important step in changing the GOP's image to one that's more inclusive and minority-friendly, potentially helping Rubio and his party win over more Hispanics in future elections. And it could cement Rubio's reputation as a bridge-builder – someone who has the trust of the party's conservative base and can bring it along, or at least neutralize some of its concerns, on a hot-button policy measure its members have historically opposed.
On the other hand, if the bill fails – or if it passes but winds up simply granting legal status to people here illegally without following through on the promise to secure the border – Rubio may find some of those same bridges burned. He would then face the delicate task of having to repair relations with the party's base, for whom illegal immigration has often proved a key voting issue in primaries.
In 2008, Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona lost the Iowa caucuses badly in large part because of his support for the failed 2007 comprehensive immigration plan. During the most recent presidential election cycle, Texas Gov. Rick Perry drew fire from the right over his support for in-state college tuition for children of illegal immigrants. By contrast, Mitt Romney took a strong no-amnesty stand, famously calling for illegal immigrants to "self-deport." That may have helped Mr. Romney win the nomination, but he went on to garner just 27 percent of the Hispanic vote in the general election – a big reason for his loss to President Obama.
Rubio seems well aware of the potential pitfalls, and he has been careful to emphasize that he understands where those on the far right are coming from. He also isn't overpromising when it comes to what ultimately winds up in the bill (which has not yet been drafted), making clear that there's a chance he won't be able to support it in the end if, for example, adequate border-security triggers aren't included.
In an interview Tuesday with radio host Rush Limbaugh, Rubio said that if Mr. Obama tries to set off a "bidding war" by putting forward a proposal with more lenient provisions, "then there won't be a solution." He added: "I'm just trying to do the best I can with what's already a tough situation. I pray it works out. I can't guarantee that it will, but we're going to do our best."
For his part, Mr. Limbaugh – who has made clear that he opposes the plan, which he calls "amnesty" – was nevertheless complimentary of Rubio, telling him: "What you are doing is admirable and noteworthy," but adding that he doesn't trust the president on the matter.
The bill's prospects will likely hinge on timing as much as anything else. Frustrated by recent electoral losses, Republicans have been openly discussing for months the need to moderate the party's hard-line stance on immigration. As Senator McCain put it bluntly Monday: "The Republican Party is losing the support of our Hispanic citizens. And we realize this is an issue in which we are in agreement with our Hispanic citizens."
In addition, the rate of illegal immigration has abated in recent years – a phenomenon most analysts credit to the weak US economy – and that slowdown may be taking some of the passion out of the opposition, at least as compared with the last time the issue came up during the Bush years.
Rubio himself has evolved on the issue, since he has previously argued in favor of a "piecemeal" approach rather than one comprehensive bill. As Mickey Kaus of The Daily Caller tweeted this week: "If a pol had Rubio's convenient policy shifts + weren't a) moving 2 Dem side + b) Latino, what would MSM call him? #opportunisticflipflopper."
But if Congress passes a comprehensive reform package, will anyone really remember or care about Rubio's previous positioning? We doubt it. And it will provide a big stake to the claim that he represents the future of the Republican Party.