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Civil War Cometh: GOP Prepares For Explosive Immigration Debate

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The coming weeks and months will pose a critical test for party leaders who want to secure an overhaul in order to stay relevant with the changing American electorate. Their conservative base, significant portions of which view reform as an existential threat to the country, have succeeded in getting them to do nothing so far, and are begging them to continue ignoring the issue.

"You cannot put any immigration [bill] on the president's desk that is good for this country and get him to sign it. And so any debate we have here in the House is only going to divide Republicans and unify Democrats," Rep. Steve King (R-IA) told TPM. "The best course of action is to say, 'We're not taking up immigration, we can't trust the president' -- and both of those things will be easily defensible."

King's stance is backed by influential conservatives. Editors of the National Review ran an article Monday titled, "Don't Do It," which declared, "The House GOP should do nothing on immigration." The Weekly Standard's editor, Bill Kristol, warned that "[i]f there's one thing that could blow up GOP chances for a good 2014, it would be an explosive debate over immigration in the House." Tea party groups also oppose the push and are expected to mobilize against it.

The issue embodies the GOP's greatest dilemma: Its reliance on a deeply conservative base of older, mostly white voters who tend to resist the changes demanded by a more diverse national electorate -- particularly the fast-growing Latino population. Demographic trends suggest that overhauling immigration is necessary for Republicans to be competitive in future presidential elections.

But there's no way to do it without angering many conservatives. So far, Republicans have struggled to come up with palatable rhetoric to sell their ideas. House Budget Chair Paul Ryan (R-WI) told CBS News that the House GOP won't do "amnesty" but is open to "legalization -- something like a probationary status." Unlike the Senate-passed bill, a House Republican plan won't come with a guarantee of eventual citizenship for the undocumented.

Even pro-immigration GOP veterans are circumspect about getting a bill passed.

"I do believe there'll be votes. Whether or not there'll be a deal -- it's too early to say," Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK), a deputy majority whip and ally of Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), told TPM. "I could see a range of compromises that build confidence that might create a process that could lead us a little bit further."

Contrary to some of his GOP colleagues, Cole said President Barack Obama has not been playing politics with immigration. "I think in recent weeks, if anything I've seen the rhetoric lowered," he said. "I've seen the president pull back and not castigate or throw some bombs but say, 'Well, where are the steps we can find common ground on?'"

Obama is eager to secure an accomplishment on immigration, which is why he played nice with Republicans over the issue in his State of the Union speech this week. Democratic leaders are open to watering down the Senate overhaul -- which passed with 68 votes last May -- in order to get a bill done. Those who prefer more sweeping reform may be in a bind if Democrats support a scaled-back plan.

For now, a number of Republicans are keeping their powder dry on the substance but leaving plenty of wiggle room to oppose bills that may be brought up.

"There is a great need to resolve immigration. I don't think anyone says this system's working great," said Rep. James Lankford (R-OK). "The problem right now is the process. Are we going to play politics with it or are we going to try to take it systematically and let the American people have input?"

Meanwhile, the apocalyptic warnings from the politically hyperactive tea party base are growing louder. Conservative provocateur Ann Coulter wrote a column headlined, "GOP crafts plan to wreck country, lose voters," warning that the new immigrants will vote for Democrats and marginalize the GOP. King told TPM that an overhaul that legalizes the undocumented would damage America forever.

"I've been worried about this moment for, oh, three years, now. ... This is not a reversible policy," the congressman said. "This country would be transformed forever. ... Not in the lifetime of the republic could the rule of law with regard to immigration be restored again."

About The Author

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Sahil Kapur is TPM's senior congressional reporter and Supreme Court correspondent. His articles have been published in the Huffington Post, The Guardian and The New Republic. Email him at sahil@talkingpointsmemo.com and follow him on Twitter at @sahilkapur.