For Boehner And GOP, Path To Immigration Reform Is A Muddle

House Speaker John Boehner's immigration proposal was shot down by his own party almost as soon as he laid it out. While it might have driven a wedge between two important Democratic groups, it still sounded too much like amnesty to many Republicans. The GOP finds itself in a pickle on immigration.

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The immigration issue has become a political hot potato for Republicans. Last year, the Senate passed a bipartisan immigration reform bill, and the House decided not to take it up. But then House Republicans changed their minds briefly until they gave up again. NPR's Mara Liasson explains where things stand now.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: The consensus in Washington was pretty clear: immigration reform was dead for the rest of this year. But then House Speaker John Boehner brought it to life again, floating a set of principles, including legalization for undocumented workers. Eventual citizenship wasn't ruled out, and that made reform advocates in the White House hopeful Boehner's proposal might break logjam. But then almost as quickly as he had opened the door to a possible compromise, John Boehner shut it again.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER: There's widespread doubt about whether this administration can be trusted to enforce our laws. And it's going to be difficult to move any immigration legislation until that changes.

LIASSON: Boehner was blaming President Obama, but what really happened was a backlash from his party's conservative base. The Heritage Foundation posted this video of its domestic policy chief, Derrick Morgan, trashing Boehner's legalization idea.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO CLIP)

DERRICK MORGAN: I think under any reasonable definition, that would be amnesty, granting the legal status. If you went above and beyond that and granted citizenship, that would be amnesty, plus the citizenship.

LIASSON: This is more than just the familiar fight inside the Republican Party about amnesty. There's also a deep divide about tactics and timing even among Republicans in favor of immigration reform. The new thinking goes like: 2014 is shaping up to be a great election year for Republicans, so let's not do anything that messes that up. Here's Weekly Standard editor, Bill Kristol.

BILL KRISTOL: I think if Republicans had no chance of controlling the Senate in November 2014, maybe people would have different calculations about running the risk of a bitterly divisive fight on immigration.

LIASSON: Kristol and others figure that in 2015, when the Republicans have more Senate seats, maybe even a majority, they can write an immigration bill more to their liking. But to former Bush administration official, Alfonso Aguilar, also an immigration reform supporter, that's a risky strategy.

ALFONSO AGUILAR: This idea that it's better to do it next year is just based on many assumptions that may actually not come true. What happens if you get to 2015, not happens. If Republicans don't do anything on immigration before the 2016 election, it's going to be very difficult for the Republican candidate - almost impossible to win the election.

LIASSON: Almost impossible because Republicans can't win without more Hispanic votes. In 2012, Mitt Romney got a dismal 27 percent of the Hispanic vote. And next time, Hispanics will be an even bigger share of the electorate. While immigration may not be the tough issue for Latinos, it is what Aguilar calls a gateway issue that prevents Latinos from listening to Republicans on other issues.

AGUILAR: And it's frustrating because Latinos are frustrated with unemployment. You saw the job numbers for January. Latino unemployment went up to 8.4%. They're frustrated with the state of the economy. They're concerned about the president's radical agenda on social issues. But none of that is helpful politically for Republicans if you don't get this issue right.

LIASSON: And something else worries Aguilar. If they wait until 2015, the Republican presidential primary will be underway and Republican candidates for president will feel growing pressure to move to the right on immigration. They'll be traveling to places like Iowa where they'll encounter people like Steve Deace, a talk show host and conservative activist.

STEVE DEACE: Once they get out from Washington, D.C., and beyond the liberal media and beltway subculture, and they get out to Iowa and South Carolina, and they visit the base of their party, they're going to figure out, if I want to be president of United States, I need to actually represent my party's interests and not the media and the ruling class's interests. So I think the issue is dead as dead as a doornail.

LIASSON: There is a scenario that immigration reformers hope for and conservatives fear, that the Republican House leadership rams through an immigration bill this year with a majority of Democratic votes, just the way the speaker passed the farm bill, the budget and the debt ceiling. To Bill Kristol, that would be a bad idea, deepening the split between the GOP establishment and the party's base. Kristol says immigration reform calls for a real change of heart, not just a new political rationale.

KRISTOL: They can't go to a bunch of people who were elected on one set of positions and tell them, hey, we've done some fancy electoral calculations. We looked at why Romney lost. We think ahead about some demographic changes, just change your view on this.

LIASSON: So immigration remains as stubborn a puzzle as ever for the GOP. Despite repeated efforts by John Boehner and others, the party still hasn't figured out how to reach the fastest-growing block of voters in the country without alienating its conservative base. And the clock is ticking. Every month, 50,000 Hispanics in America turn 18 and become eligible to vote.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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