CPAC surprise: optimism about immigration reform

At CPAC Thursday, a top Republican pollster and a key House conservative on the immigration-reform debate hit perhaps the most optimistic notes to date on the progress of such legislation.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida walks on the stage after speaking at the 40th annual Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Md., Thursday.

A top Republican pollster and a key House conservative on the immigration-reform debate have hit perhaps the most optimistic notes to date on the progress of immigration-reform legislation.

Lawmakers on both sides of the Capitol have been keen to keep their immigration discussions under wraps. That code of silence has persevered even as working groups in both chambers are fast approaching a loose deadline to deliver a bill, largely expected by sometime in April. Skepticism has grown that one or both chambers will be able to reach a deal, given the massive political and policy challenges on immigration.

But speaking on a panel at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Maryland on Thursday, Republican pollster Whit Ayres sounded confident about the prospects.

“I do know that some of the members of the ‘Gang of Eight’ in the Senate are very optimistic that they will be able to put together a bill that will gain about half the Republican votes and almost all the Democratic votes,” said Mr. Ayres, who counts Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida, a member of the so-called Gang of Eight senators working on immigration reform, among his clients.

“If they’re able to do that, it would have a whale of a head of steam going into the House, and it would provide a lot of cover for those in the House who find a vote for immigration reform difficult,” Ayres continued at America's largest gathering of conservative activists. “I will tell you there are some people who are deeply involved in this in the Senate who believe that can happen.”

Rep. Raúl Labrador (R) of Idaho – a former immigration lawyer who has played a central role in closely held House deliberations on immigration – largely matched Ayres’s optimism.

The chances of reforming the immigration system are “the highest that we’ve had in a long time,” Representative Labrador said. “I actually think the House is going to be more proactive than the Senate and you’re going to see that in the near future.”

Labrador noted he feared that labor unions could derail a deal over conservative and business requests for a large program for guest workers.

In 2007, the last time immigration reform came before Congress, the defection of the AFL-CIO over guest-worker provisions helped sink a burgeoning deal.

But that may be less of a problem this time. The AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest labor union, and the Chamber of Commerce, the business community’s top dog in Washington, recently reached an agreement on principles to guide the future flow of low-skilled temporary workers.

Why are there reasons to be optimistic on immigration? Ayres, who has long warned his party about the political peril it risks by not reaching Hispanic voters, had a few theories after his panel discussion Thursday.

First is an idea others have voiced as well: “Conservatives thought we were going to win in November and we didn’t, and one of the reasons we didn’t was getting waxed among minorities while winning a landslide among non-Hispanic whites,” he told the Monitor. 

Now, Republicans are worried that unless they take the initiative and present their own plan, they will be painted once again as out-of-touch on immigration.

Republican senators “know that there will be some kind of plan coming out of the White House and they’re not likely to approve of that plan, so they’d like to see something else that’s rooted in conservative principles, that will allow them to get behind something they feel comfortable with,” Ayres says.

Finally, the idea that 12 million people living in the US illegally is “de facto amnesty” is catching on, Ayres argues. This idea, emphasized in public speeches and interviews by Senator Rubio, has led to calls to address the situation.

“We’ve got to do something different,” Ayres says. “It’s kind of a perfect storm of opinion-shifting since November.”

But for all the optimism, the politics of immigration remain difficult for conservatives. The massive lecture hall was roughly a third full for the immigration panel, compared with stronger showings for panel discussions on US military strategy and the terror attack in Benghazi, Libya.

And while Rubio and Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky, both of whom spoke at CPAC Thursday, are on the leading edge of GOP immigration policy, one word was missing from both of their rousing addresses: immigration.

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