Labrador has said he wants a "free-market" approach to reform, including on issues like wages, and has criticized the Senate's version of a guest-worker program. Despite these differences, he remains optimistic about a bill passing the house, and says that, at this stage, any reports of intra-Republican divisions over the issue are a media invention, a holdover from the Bush years. "The media says that conservatives are against immigration reform," he told The Atlantic. "I haven't found that to be the case. Most hardcore conservatives in the House come from rural agricultural districts, so we understand the need for reform."
But the fact is that hardline anti-reform elements remain. Iowa Representative Steve King, who recently referred to illegal immigrants as "unregistered Democrats," has given no indication that he will be any more amenable this year than during reform efforts in the past. Labrador concedes that there will be "individual members opposed to any kind of immigration reform," and added that King "does not speak for the conservative movement as a whole."
After watching Mitt Romney earn just 27 percent of the Hispanic vote in November, many Republicans are eager to move on a bill, but Labrador is quick to tamp down expectations that new legislation will produce immediate electoral gains.
"The old guard believes that if we fix the immigration we will all of a sudden get 43 percent of the Hispanic vote. We won't. In fact, I don't think we will get much credit for fixing the immigration problem," Labrador says. But he does see broader political advantages. "If we fix this problem, [Hispanics and minority voters] will listen to us on other issues."
November's results may be a motivating memory, but an uncompromising conservative like Labrador can also change the calculus on an issue. Young Republican lawmakers who have come to trust and admire Labrador's principled stands may be more willing to listen to him when he says that the time for flexibility and collaboration with Democrats has come.
This unique mix of assets may also explain how Labrador has been able to get away with an independent streak that has at times bordered on insubordination. After he refused to vote to reelect Boehner, he earned a lashing from Idaho's senior congressman, Mike Simpson, who suggested that by refusing to vote, the upstart politician had done irreparable damage to his reputation in Washington. "Once you lose that credibility it's gone and it's gone forever," Simpson said at the time, the Idaho Statesman reported. Before the dust settled, Labrador called Simpson, an influential eight-term House veteran, "a bully" and "an old-school legislator that went to Washington, D.C., to compromise."
A total of 13 representatives did not vote for Boehner as speaker, and many of them paid an immediate price by being stripped of their committee assignments. Justin Amash, the staunch libertarian from Michigan, took his protest one step further by writing in a vote for Labrador as speaker. For that stunt, he was one of four congressmen unceremoniously removed from the House Budget and Banking Committee. Notably, Labrador -- despite his involvement in the failed coup -- somehow managed to emerge unscathed.