Like observers from all over the partisan and ideological spectrum, I’ve been following the fallout from Arizona’s new immigration law (compounded by conflicting reports that the Obama administration and/or congressional Democratic leaders might be moving up federal immigration legislation in the queue) very closely, given the implications this issue has for both 2010 and (particularly) beyond.
But in his weekly column for National Journal over the weekend, Ron Brownstein has done us all the great service of carefully documenting how far and how fast Republican members of Congress have moved on this subject since the Senate passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill in 2006:
Just four years ago, 62 U.S. senators, including 23 Republicans, voted for a comprehensive immigration reform bill that included a pathway to citizenship for illegal aliens. That bill was co-authored by Arizona Republican John McCain and Massachusetts Democrat Edward Kennedy. President Bush strongly supported it. The Republican supporters also included such conservative senators as Sam Brownback of Kansas and Mitch McConnell of Kentucky….
The measure almost certainly could have attracted the necessary 218 votes to pass the House. But it died when House GOP leaders refused to bring it to a vote because they concluded that it lacked majority support among House Republicans.
Since 2006, Republican support for comprehensive action has unraveled. In 2007, Senate negotiators tilted the bill further to the right on issues such as border enforcement and guest workers. And yet, amid a rebellion from grassroots conservatives against anything approaching “amnesty,” just 12 Senate Republicans supported the measure as it fell victim to a filibuster. By 2008, McCain declared in a GOP presidential debate that he would no longer support his own bill: Tougher border enforcement, he insisted, should precede discussion of any new pathway to citizenship.
So the GOP position was moving rightwards at warp speed even with a supporter of comprehensive immigration reform, George W. Bush, still in the White House, being advised by Karl Rove, who viewed such legislation as critical to maintaining a competitive position for Republicans among Hispanic voters. But it’s shifted even more since then, even though levels of immigration have significantly dropped.
For months, Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., have been negotiating an enforcement-legalization plan that largely tracks the 2006 model with some innovative updates, including a “biometric” Social Security card to certify legal status for employment. On balance, their proposal appears more conservative than the 2006 bill.
Yet it has been stalled for weeks because Graham had demanded that a second Republican sign on as a co-sponsor before the legislation is released, and none stepped forward. Even Graham angrily backed away this week, after Senate Democratic leaders briefly suggested they would move immigration reform ahead of climate-change legislation he is also negotiating. Reform advocates suspect that Graham is withdrawing from the immigration effort partly to avoid embarrassing his close ally McCain, who faces a stiff primary challenge from conservative former Rep. J.D. Hayworth.
So it appears that Senate Republican support for comprehensive immigration reform (or to be exact, a more conservative version of it) has dropped from 23 to 1 and perhaps soon to nada.
Underneath this shift, notes Brownstein, is the self-replicating demographic isolation of the GOP, which, as Rove forsaw, could make the construction of a Republican majority much harder in the medium-to-long-range future:
[T]he hardening GOP position also shows how the party is being tugged toward nativism as its coalition grows more monochromatic: In a nation that is more than one-third minority, nearly 90 percent of McCain’s votes in the 2008 presidential election came from whites. That exclusionary posture could expose the GOP to long-term political danger. Although Hispanics are now one-sixth of the U.S. population, they constitute one-fifth of all 10-year-olds and one-fourth of 1-year-olds.
This may not matter to Republican candidates in tough primaries this year, who aren’t looking beyond their noses and figure they can’t afford to get outflanked by opponents who are “getting tough” on immigration. But they are in danger of taking an existing demographic problem facing the GOP and making it immeasurably worse, and more immediate.