"I thought he did a very, very good job in talking about and embracing some ideals of dealing with illegal immigration and embracing some of the reform measures my friends are putting together," Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-SC) said. Duncan has an A+ career rating from anti-immigration group Numbers USA and once compared illegal immigrants to "vagrants" and "animals."
Paul was only the latest in a parade of conservative Republicans, including Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), who have talked up reform in recent weeks. And if the reaction in the room on Wednesday is any indication, their message is taking hold.
"We're not going to round up millions and millions of people, kids and grandmas and grandpas and send them to wherever," Rep. Trey Radel (R-FL) said, adding there were both "conservative arguments" and "emotional arguments" that should compel the House to address immigration.
In addition to Duncan and Radel, the group included Reps. Raul Labrador (R-ID), Tim Huelskamp (R-KS), Dave Schweikert (R-AZ), Thomas Massie (R-KY), Jim Jordan (R-OH), Steve Scalise (R-LA), and Mick Mulvaney (R-SC).
After several members expressed their support for some version of reform, they were asked as a group whether any one of them disagreed with Paul's call to legalize the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country. The group looked to each other and shook their heads. Not one raised an objection -- at most they said they wanted more details.
Massie said that after reading Paul's remarks, "based on the overarching plan he laid out in that speech I would support it unequivocally."
If the panel on Wednesday -- which included two members (Huelskamp and Schweikert) who were booted from committee assignments at the beginning of this Congress for bucking leadership from the right too often -- couldn't produce any immigration hardliners, it's unlikely there's anything close to the kind of insurgency needed to derail a bill in the House right now.
There was some confusion among the participants over whether Paul supported a path to citizenship (he did, just not by name), but Rep. Raul Labrador (R-ID), the leading tea party conservative working on a bipartisan immigration bill in the House, didn't seem to ruffle any feathers when he said he supported a plan that would allow undocumented immigrants to eventually become citizens.
"We shouldn't create a second class group that could never become citizens, but we should also not give them a special pathway that nobody can follow," Labrador told the audience, adding that any bill also needed border enforcement triggers that would be met before reaching that point.
"I think many of us are willing to consider what Raul just descibed there," Jordan, the former chair of the conservative Republican Study Committee, said.
Just so we're clear the kinds of guys we're talking about (and they were all guys), this is an excerpt from an op-ed Jordan, who has a career "A" rating from NumbersUSA, wrote when immigration reform died in 2007:
The Senate proposal would have effectively granted amnesty to some 12 million people living in this country illegally. I cannot think of a more misguided approach to one of the most pressing issues facing our country today. Apparently, neither can most Americans.
Huelskamp told TPM he could find plenty to like in a comprehensive bill from a conservative perspective -- it would boost to his state's agricultural business, local Catholic leaders support it, and by granting legal status to undocumented immigrants it would be easier to track and prevent them from using welfare benefits.
"[Americans] know the system has been broken," Huelskamp said.
Legalizing 11 million undocumented immigrants has quickly and quietly become the new conservative floor for reform. And there's been little in the way of vocal objection to proposals by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and an expected proposal from Labrador that they say would allow undocumented immigrants to one day become citizens. This is a huge shift from just a few months ago, when Mitt Romney ran on "self-deportation" and the GOP platform endorsed the same concept.
Asked about the change, Labrador said he thought Republicans were already supportive of comprehensive immigration reform, they just were "a little more vocal about it" after Romney's defeat. As for citizenship, he called it a "minor issue" in conversations with House Republicans, and one far less dangerous to reform than union objections to letting in more low-skilled immigrants in the future.
"What I've told conservatives is that we need to be open-minded about what we do with the 11 million so we can get what we want on border security, on guest worker programs," he said. "That really should be the tone in negotiations."
This post has been updated.