Breaking Tea Party clout vital for Republican future
After Barack Obama trounced Mitt Romney, with major Latino voter support, in November, it seemed that Republicans had no option but to back efforts to create a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in America.
But a funny, yet all-too-familiar, thing has happened en route to immigration law reform: the Republican hard-right has kicked up such a fuss that hopes of a bi-partisan bill have dimmed in recent weeks.
Undocumented migrants from Latin America comprise almost 80% of all illegal immigrants in the US. And it's an open secret that immigration law reform has been slow going, because a broad range of American industries – agricultural, construction and service sector – have long benefited from this steady stream of low-wage workers with no legal rights. Obama's capturing of 71% of the Hispanic vote in November was a wake-up-and-smell-the-coffee moment for most Republicans. Most of them, but not all.
Last month, congressman Bob Goodlatte, a Republican from Virginia, who heads the House judiciary committee – which deals with immigration issues – said he'll oppose any legislation that includes a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
Goodlatte is a darling of the Tea Party movement. Other members of the Tea Party caucus in Congress – including its founding members Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, Iowa's Steve King and Louie Gohmert of Texas – have been equally as vociferous in voicing their opposition to a pathway. Goodlatte made his comments a week after the so-called 'Gang of Eight' – four Democrat and four Republican senators – declared in late January that they'd agreed a multi-step approach to an immigration law overhauling.
The group's plan would have the undocumented register with the government, pay a fine and then be allowed to stay and work legally on a probationary basis.
Time is not on the side of the reformers. A year from now, all 435 members of the House of Representatives and a third of the 100-member Senate will be in the midst of campaigning for re-election in November 2014. Little, if any, major legislation gets passed during an election year.
The demographic clock is ticking as well. The decisive clout that Latinos wielded in last November's presidential sweepstakes wasn't a flash in the pan. Their influence on all levels of politics will only grow with the coming election. Republican leaders may be intransigent on many fiscal issues, but they aren't stupid. They know well that their party's fate will increasingly lie in the Latino hands. Their biggest problem is the tantrum-prone Tea Party movement. The defeats of some of its leading lights in November's elections showed the Tea Party's influence has waned somewhat. But the fiscal hardline adopted by the Republicans, that helped to trigger the $85bn (£56.6bn) in 'sequester' budget cuts, shows that the Tea Party is still a force within the wider party.
Whether or not that force is truly on the wane may well determine the fate of immigration reform – and the Republican party itself.