The One Word That Explains the GOP Move on Immigration: Survival

National Journal

The GOP wants to survive. That is one interpretation of the move toward amnesty and broad immigration reform spearheaded by a bipartisan group of senators today.

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The other is that elections have consequences.

Four Republican and four Democratic senators are pushing a path to American citizenship for 11 million illegal immigrants who would need to pay fines and taxes, and await government certification of tough border security. These provisions are political cover for what was unthinkable just a few months ago: amnesty.

What has changed? President Obama won about 70 percent of the Hispanic vote in November, according to exit polls, while Republican Mitt Romney carried barely more than a quarter. The primary reason is the GOP's positions on immigration reform that to many Hispanics seem confrontational, even bigoted. Romney famously proposed "self-deportation" of 11 million illegal immigrants.

Hispanics are fast becoming the most important voting block in politics, and losing their support by wide margins is a sure ticket to irrelevancy.

Romney won a smaller share of the Hispanic vote than the 2008 GOP presidential nominee, John McCain. A champion of immigration reform, McCain was forced to back away from the issue as he positioned for his failed presidential race. He is now part of the bipartisan group of senators behind this latest push.

Also part of the group is a rising young conservative, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a darling of the tea party who is urging right-wing commentators to either support immigration reform or at least withhold withering condemnation of it.

It is unclear whether this package or one like it can clear the many hurdles, especially the GOP-controlled House. But as Julia Preston writes in The New York Times, "Lawmakers said they were optimistic that the political mood had changed since a similar effort collapsed in acrimony in 2010."

Regardless, this is another sign that Republican leaders may be moving toward the center "“ if not ideologically, at least pragmatically "“ to a position the GOP all but abandoned in recent months: political sanity.

The timing of the announcement is interesting: Obama is scheduled to travel to Las Vegas on Tuesday to urge Congress to ease restrictions on immigration. It is possible that the Senate group is trying to steal Obama's thunder, although the White House knows that the smartest political course might be cede the lead to McCain, Rubio, and other immigration moderates. Nothing stirs conservative ire faster than Obama's support.