Sen. Rand Paul on Wednesday waded deeper into an issue that has proved perilous to some of his GOP colleagues, throwing his political weight behind an establishment lobby effort to get Congress to reform the country’s immigration system this year.
Mr. Paul, a libertarian-leaning Republican from Kentucky and possible 2016 presidential hopeful, participated in a telephone conference call with members of a pro-immigration reform group and reporters in an effort brokered by anti-tax activist Grover Norquist.
The business group that helped set up the call, the Partnership for a New American Economy, immediately blasted an email Wednesday evening to supporters crowing that Mr. Paul had formally joined its pro-reform effort.
The timing of the call only heightened the potential stakes for Mr. Paul just one day after House Majority Leader Eric Cantor was shockingly ousted from office in the Virginia Republican primary in favor of a little-known college professor.
Tea party activists who whipped up a get-out-the-vote effort for Mr. Cantor’s opponent said they were motivated by the incumbent’s advocacy for immigration reform, actions on Obamacare and vote to raise the nation’s debt ceiling.
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Mr. Cantor was the second high-profile Republican to suffer political damage by stepping forward on the immigration issue. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, another potential presidential contender, lost the support of his tea party base when he advocated a plan for immigration that some argued created a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
On Thursday morning, Mr. Paul’s staff insisted the senator does not support amnesty.
“He has never advocated for amnesty in any other forum,” said spokesman Brian Darling. “As a matter of fact, Sen. Paul offered an amendment on the immigration bill last year to strengthen border security by forcing annual votes in Congress before any benefits from the bill were authorized.”
Mr. Paul, a longtime favorite of the tea party movement, has made it clear that he believes Congress needs the courage to enact immigration reform. But his latest effort pushed him further into the middle of a strident battle between establishment Republicans like Mr. Norquist who see immigration reform as essential to economic growth, and tea party activists who fear the current efforts in Congress will only lead to de facto amnesty for illegal immigrants.
Those familiar with the efforts to enlist Mr. Paul in the call said if the senator from Kentucky can use his influence with the two factions to find common ground, he would create the base of an expansive coalition to aid his presidential ambitions.
The danger, others noted, is that he could be portrayed as an establishment sympathizer and have some his base turn against him.
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One of his chief rivals for tea party affection — both inside the Senate and possibly in the 2016 GOP race — is Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who has made clear that he plans to make Republicans uncomfortable if they gravitate toward amnesty.
Mr. Cruz on Wednesday told TellDC, the video partner of The Washington Times, that the Virginia election was a wake-up call to any elected official who goes against their constituencies’ wishes.
“That election is a lesson to every elected official that if we don’t listen to the people who elected us, our tenure here is limited,” the freshman Republican said.
Mr. Paul, whose supporters style him as a “live and let live” conservative, can use the issue to try to coalesce behind his disparate GOP coalition elements, including tea party backers, traditionalist conservatives, business interests and establishment Republicans.
A top Paul aide confirmed the alliance of Mr. Paul and Mr. Norquist on immigration reform, after The Times received a copy of an email sent to Republicans, Democrats, independents and others thought to be open to some kind of reform.
“Rand made the calls on immigration reform with Grover this morning,” Doug Stafford, who heads Mr. Paul’s political action committee, told The Times.
The email from the group announcing Mr. Paul’s participation opened with a subject line that stated that the senator “adds voice to #CallForReform.”
“Today, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) joined Grover Norquist to talk about the importance of passing immigration reform this year on the second call in a series with conservative leaders,” the group’s executive director, Jeremy Robbins, wrote in the email.
The message went on to note that “Senator Paul follows Sal Russo, co-founder of the Tea Party Express, who launched the series last month by calling for an overhaul of America’s immigration laws this year.”
The email concluded by noting that Mr. Paul and Mr. Russo “join an increasingly large group of conservatives who understand that the future of our economy depends on fixing our outdated immigration reform system.”
Many Americans of all political stripes regard the phrase “immigration reform” as code for granting amnesty to foreigners living in the U.S. illegally.
To some “rule of law” conservatives, it is a swear word. To other conservatives, putting millions of illegal immigrants on the road to legal status and eventually to citizenship is realistic politically and fair for people who flee warlords, drug lords and dysfunctional economies abroad to find work in the U.S.
The Partnership for a New American Economy boasts such high-profile members as former New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, a common foe of gun rights advocates and many other conservatives, and the equally wealthy Rupert Murdoch, the conservative owner of major newspapers and the Fox television family of news and entertainment channels.
The organization’s website claims it “brings together more than 500 Republican, Democratic, and independent mayors and business leaders united in making the economic case for streamlining, modernizing, and rationalizing our immigration system.”
Mr. Paul has been calling for a reform of immigration laws that secures the borders first, provides for a robust guest-worker program and can, under certain conditions, lead to the legalization of those who entered the U.S. without authorization or who overstayed their visas.