Marco Rubio was not amused.
The senator from Florida had listened patiently as a panel of hand-picked conservatives, lined up across a long table at the front of the room, took turns speaking about the prospects of immigration reform. When discussion finally opened to the anxious, overflowing crowd of lawmakers at the Republican Study Committee's immigration summit, several were quick to critique their pro-reform colleagues – Rubio the headliner among them.
Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., argued they should be discussing a report by the Heritage Foundation's Robert Rector on the costs of amnesty. Rep. Scott Garrett, R-N.J., raised concerns about implementing an e-Verify system. But it was Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas, who got under Rubio’s skin.
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Referencing a Jay Leno one-liner, Burgess questioned fellow conservatives about the wisdom of giving citizenship to "11 million undocumented Democrats." Laughter, some of it nervous, spread throughout the room. But not everyone found Burgess' crack funny. According to several people who attended the June 5th gathering, Rubio glared at Burgess.
This account, confirmed by multiple members and staffers, sheds light on what is perhaps the most politically obvious -- and perpetually underplayed -- conservative argument against providing citizenship to the nation's illegal immigrants. With all the noise surrounding the debate over policy specifics -- security measures, enforcement triggers, future flow, interior oversight -- there is still an underlying political argument whispered among some of Congress's most conservative members: After 71 percent of Hispanics voted for President Obama in 2012, why should Republicans add millions more to the voting rolls?
Not everyone feels the need to whisper. At this year's Conservative Political Action Conference, Iowa Rep. Steve King -- the leading immigration hardliner in the House GOP -- earned laughter and applause during an immigration panel when he quipped: "Even Republicans seem to think that these undocumented Democrats could be made voters and somehow we're going to win in that equation. And what happens is that two out of every three that would be legalized become Democrats."
Such commentary is not unusual from King, who is doing everything in his power -- including organizing an anti-immigration event this week on the steps of the Capitol -- to halt the momentum of reform efforts in the House. What's telling is that he's practically the only one making that point publicly. Even Burgess, who represents a deep-red congressional district and opposes “any proposal to grant amnesty to illegal aliens,” said his piece behind closed doors, in the basement of the Capitol, at an event that was off-limits to the press.
Burgess explained his quip as "an effort to tamp down some of the tension in the room," but said there is a serious conversation being had about the subject of his joke. "I live in a state that has voted Republican in statewide elections for a long time. And yet you cannot pick up a Dallas Morning News, Houston Chronicle, Fort Worth Star-Telegram without reading an article about how 'Texas is going to be a Democratic state, it's just a matter of time,'" Burgess told National Journal. "What's going on here, is people think if we get a larger and larger immigrant population, they will be obligated to vote Democratic."
Burgess was quick to point out that he doesn't agree with that assessment. But King does. And the Iowa congressman seems to smell blood in the water, suggesting the "undocumented Democrat" argument -- long peddled by radio host Rush Limbaugh, who first used the term in 2010 -- is “starting to emerge” as a point of contention among conservatives.
If King is right, and this political argument is gaining steam, it could thanks to a trickle-down dynamic -- the national conversation influencing conservatives in Congress. There are no shortage of conservative activists, media personalities, and elected officials who have taken tough stances outside of Washington in an attempt to influence what happens within the Beltway.
One of these hardliners, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, has repeatedly warned about what happened after Ronald Reagan signed a so-called "amnesty package" in 1986: Republicans won a significantly smaller percentage of the Hispanic vote in 1988 (30 percent) than they had in 1980 (35 percent) or 1984 (37 percent). For that reason, Kobach told National Journal earlier this year, the "law and order" stance continues to be "the most advantageous position" for the GOP. "We can improve our outreach and expand and amplify our message ... without embracing amnesty," he said.
That argument, oft-cited in the conservative blogosphere, has caught on among Capitol Hill conservatives. Both King and Burgess mentioned the Reagan-Bush statistic in separate interviews, and some of their colleagues have consistently pointed to the precedent set by the 1986 law.
"Historically, the notion that amnesty equals more votes has proven to be untrue," House Immigration Subcommittee Chairman Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., said at the outset of the new Congress, adding: "So if you think that we're one comprehensive immigration reform bill away from electoral success, you're kidding yourself."
This thinking, of course, runs counter to the post-2012 conventional wisdom that Republicans lost Hispanics because of the party’s harsh immigration rhetoric and its opposition to reform. If the system were fixed, some Republicans argued after Mitt Romney's 44-point drubbing among Hispanics, Democrats would be robbed of a political cudgel and Republicans could finally reach out in earnest to the nation's fastest-growing voting faction.
"We need to fix the broken immigration system, get this issue off the table, so then we can go out and advocate to the Hispanic community that our conservative principles are better for them than the principles of the Democratic Party," Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, said in an interview earlier this year. Labrador, who has emerged as King's policy rival on the immigration front, added: "But the problem that we're having with the Hispanic community right now is that they're not even listening to us. It doesn't matter whether they agree with us or not because as soon as they see a Republican, they shut down."
Sounds familiar? This argument was made seven years ago by George W. Bush and his political team; it's being made by Obama today. King wasn't buying it back in 2006 -- when he tangled with Karl Rove on the subject -- and he's certainly not buying it now. "They (pro-reform Republicans) are saying we are never going to win another national election if we don't pass comprehensive immigration reform. That's almost exactly what the president said to us when he came to our conference this February," King recalled. "He said, 'I'm trying to help you. Republicans are never going to win another national election unless you pass comprehensive immigration reform.'"
King sighed, and said: "Barack Obama is not trying to help Republicans. He wouldn't be doing this if it helped Republicans."
There are, however, some Republicans who agree with both Bush and Obama -- including the only person who ran against both of them, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. Having worked with Bush on the failed immigration overhaul in 2006, McCain is at it again, working with Obama and the Senate Gang of Eight to pass comprehensive legislation that would solve a policy problem for the country and a political problem for the GOP. When the senators unveiled their bill in April, McCain told reporters that passing immigration reform "puts us on a level playing field to compete for those (Hispanic) votes."
Fellow gang member, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., was more explicit Sunday on NBC's Meet the Press. "If we don't pass immigration reform -- if we don't get it off the table in a reasonable, practical way -- it doesn't matter who you run in 2016," Graham said. "We're in a demographic death spiral as a party.”
King can barely mask his contempt for Republicans who subscribe to this theory: "They believe that somehow if we grant amnesty that Hispanics are going to come vote for Republicans. I think that's not going to happen whether or not we pass amnesty,” King said. “If (Hispanics) vote, they're going to be voting in the patterns that they have shown up to this point. And it's clear, 75 percent or more of them are for more government -- which means more taxes, and more dependability. And that means more undocumented Democrats."
With both chambers of Congress considering immigration measures this month, the stakes couldn’t be higher, nor the contrast clearer. Conservatives on both sides of the "path to citizenship" question are convinced that their plan will save the Republican Party -- and that the alternative will destroy it. The difference, King warned, is those Republicans advocating legalization are abandoning their principles in an attempt to win millions of votes they’ll never receive.
"Their excuse is, 'We're never going to win another presidency unless we pass amnesty,'" King said. "I'll tell you it's the exact opposite. If you want to lock it in -- that Republicans will never win the presidency again -- pass the Gang of Eight bill."
Rebecca Kaplan contributed.