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Senate GOP Leaders Offer Up A Supersized Immigration Waffle (Forbes.com) February 5, 2013

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds.

It’s a miracle! After years of delay and foot-dragging, four Republican Senate leaders joined with four Democrat colleagues, crashing over a long weekend to produce a bipartisan immigration reform plan hours before President Obama was to deliver his. Perhaps they’re related to a procrastinator friend who says, “I’m like a tube of toothpaste, I have to be squeezed a little.”

But seriously, how can you account for this stunning Republican reversal on immigration? Long the party of secure borders and no amnesty, suddenly the GOP wants a path to citizenship for 11 million illegal immigrants. Only months ago, Mitt Romney was steering to the far right on immigration, outflanking his primary opponents by opposing the Dream Act’s scholarship assistance to the children of illegal immigrants. When John McCain ran for president in 2008, his answer on immigration policy was to “complete the danged fence.” The speed and scale of this reversal gives new meaning to political flip-flopping and waffling.

The low road explanation for this is pretty clear: Republicans just saw Obama win 71% of Latino votes and realized their present path is politically unsustainable. In other words, it’s all politics, and no policy or principle. Senator Harry Reid was quick to pile on, opining that it would be “a bad day” for Republicans if the bill did not pass. But even the politics of this do not entirely add up. If immigration reform legislation ultimately results in 11 million new citizens and voters, do Republicans really believe they are going to win those votes by going along with Obama and the Democrats on immigration reform? And what about the exit polls in 2012 that showed Latino voters most swayed by education, health care, the economy, the budget deficit and jobs? In other words, Latino voters, like others, are not a one-issue bloc.

While we’re throwing cold water on the politics of Republicans leading immigration reform, consider also that this leadership is coming from the Senate side, and not the House of Representatives. Republicans in the so-called Upper House tend to be more liberal and less accountable to conservative voting districts back home. Meanwhile, in the Lower House, 84% of Republicans represent districts that are 20% or less Latino or Hispanic. In other words, House Republicans, who seem essential for an immigration reform bill to pass, will probably turn out to be more accountable to conservative voters concerned about border security than reformers seeking to create a path to citizenship. Having a gang of eight bipartisan Senators throw a policy stake in the ground doesn’t buy you much in the House. This weekend of work would have been far more impressive had some House leaders taken part.

If it’s easy to find the low road motive of politics, it’s a little harder identifying the high road of policy or principle here. I guess it’s possible that Republicans have had a massive change of heart just in time for Valentine’s Day, but I’m dubious. One could argue that Republicans are free market thinkers who realize, from the 2012 election results, that this market has turned against them and they need to respond. As John McCain, one of the collaborators, put it, “Very few things get your attention as elections do.” But it would be nice if they could offer up some deeper principles behind their interest in immigration reform than simply votes. So far, we have not heard any.

In the end, as they say, the devil may be in the details. This last-minute term paper was only 5 pages of principles, which has yet to be turned into the necessary hundreds of pages of a bill. There are plenty of arguments to be had over whether greater border security is needed first, or whether Republicans are really going to just give in on that. Or what kind of fines or back taxes may be owed by those seeking to travel the path to citizenship. In other words, this is a long way from a done deal.

No matter how much butter and syrup Republicans throw on their new-found interest in immigration reform, so far it still looks a lot like a political waffle.

This article is available online at: http://www.forbes.com/sites/daviddavenport/2013/02/05/senate-gop-leaders-offer-up-a-supersized-immigration-waffle/

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