The immigration reform battle in the Senate will be won or lost on the Republican side of the aisle, where the GOP is increasingly divided on the issue.
Little more than a year ago, with few exceptions, that wasn't the case. Immigration reform was going nowhere, and conservatives were pretty much in lockstep against any changes beyond strengthening border security.
Then came the crowded field of candidates in the 2012 Republican presidential primary debates, and wide cracks began appearing in the GOP's position, especially among major conservative leaders.
Mitt Romney, for all the good it did him, took a hard-core, anti-reform position, calling for self-deportation of all illegal immigrants and not giving an inch on related issues. Some of his rivals for the nomination had other ideas, however, and that's when the political fractures began to appear.
It's worth remembering what they said because that's when the GOP's political positions on immigration reform began to slowly change.Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, one of the GOP's most popular conservative leaders, broke the ice in one of the earliest debates. He suggested that illegal immigrants who have lived here for many years, had raised their family here, paid their taxes and had never gotten into trouble with the law should be given some sort of legal status, maybe an eventual path to citizenship by going to the back of the line and applying for it. Despite Mr. Gingrich's surprising proposal, polls showed him moving to the front of the pack until his campaign ran out of steam and he eventually ended his bid for the nomination.
Then came conservative Gov. Rick Perry, who went toe-to-toe with Mr. Romney on immigration by pointing out that his state of Texas had approved in-state college tuition for the children of illegals. Anyone who disapproved of letting children who had exemplary grades go on to higher education "doesn't have a heart," Mr. Perry said. It is worth noting, as Mr. Perry did, that Texas has one of the most hard-core, conservative Republican legislatures in the country.
Then-Rep. Ron Paul, a leader of the libertarian wing of American politics, also supported reform efforts, though he sometimes played down his position in the debates.
Nevertheless, cracks had appeared among the GOP's rock-ribbed, conservative stalwarts on immigration issues. Their differences sowed the reform seeds for further debate after the election.
Then came events that opened those cracks even wider. A few days after the election, in which Barack Obama won more than 70 percent of the Hispanic vote, other conservatives broke ranks on the issue.
Tough-talking, conservative TV talk show king Sean Hannity was the first to tackle the issue head-on, saying, "We gotta get rid of the immigration issue altogether."
Mr. Hannity's fix was "simple," he said. "You control the border first, you create a pathway for those people that are here, you don't say you gotta go home. And that is a position that I've evolved on.
"If some people have criminal records, you can send them home," he added, "but if people are here, law-abiding, for years, their kids are born here," they should be given a "pathway to citizenship," he said.
Still, the idea of making any legislative movement on such a thorny, politically charged issue seemed unlikely as we headed into the new year.
Then, two newly elected, bedrock conservative leaders dramatically shifted the political dynamics of the debate. Republican Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky — elected with strong support from the GOP's Tea Party ranks — have joined with other senators seeking to put together a package of reforms to break the Senate's stalemate.
Whether they can remains to be seen. But Mr. Rubio and Mr. Paul, among others, clearly have broken through the once-impregnable obstacles to reform — while holding on to their base of support.
Last month, Mr. Paul, who picked up the libertarian banner his father championed throughout his career, endorsed a path to legalization for an estimated 11 million immigrants now living illegally in the United States.
While he avoids the term "citizenship," which he thinks is a turn-off for conservative voters, it's not something he rules out — though he told The Washington Post that at the outset, "there has to be some difference between people who come here legally and illegally.
"Everybody's going crazy — is it a pathway or isn't it a pathway?" he said. "If everything is dumbed down to 'pathway to citizenship' or 'amnesty,' we're not going to be able to move forward, because we've polarized the country."
But Mr. Paul is not against illegal immigrants eventually becoming citizens, and he doesn't think they must first return to their native country before seeking legalization.
Mr. Rubio, who has joined a bipartisan group of senators attempting to craft a plan it hopes to unveil this month, also supports a pathway to legalization and, ultimately, to citizenship. He has been cautious, though, not to move too fast, fearing it could be politically fatal to reform efforts to get too far ahead of its emerging base of support. It is better, he thinks, to gradually bring them along as the reform plan slowly evolves through the legislative process.
Last week, Mr. Rubio wrote to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, warning that he was moving too quickly, that hearings must be held first, and that there should be no "rush to legislate." Better, he says, to first build a base of support before bringing a bill to the Senate floor.
That support is growing among the GOP's large base of social conservatives and religious groups, who see reform as a cultural and moral issue. The Evangelical Immigration Table, a coalition of groups in more than 100,000 churches, has launched a nationwide phone campaign to reach out to congressional lawmakers.
No one's taking bets on whether immigration legislation will be enacted anytime soon, if at all, considering strong House opposition. The grass-roots climate has clearly changed, though, and the political needle in the Senate is inching toward passage.
Donald Lambro is a syndicated columnist and contributor to The Washington Times.
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