By CHARLES BABINGTON
2014-08-03 09:42 PM
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Midterm elections that will decide control of the Senate are three months away, and the 2016 presidential campaign will start in earnest soon after. Yet the Republican Party still can't figure out what to do about illegal immigration.
It's the issue that vexed Republicans as much as any in their 2012 presidential loss. It's the one problem the party declared it must resolve to win future presidential races. And it still managed to bedevil the party again last week, when House Republicans splintered and stumbled for a day before passing a face-saving bill late Friday night.
The fiasco proved anew that a small number of uncompromising conservatives have the power to hamper the efforts of GOP leaders to craft coherent positions on key issues -- including one that nearly two-thirds of Americans say is an important to them personally, according to an Associated Press-GfK poll released last week.
"It would be very bad for Republicans in the House not to offer their vision of how they would fix the problem," South Carolina GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham said when the initial House bill on immigration collapsed. While Republicans in the House are able to reject the proposals of Democrats, Graham said, that's not enough: "At least they have a vision."
While often a flashpoint issue among Republicans in their primaries this year, the party could get a grace period of sorts in November. Immigration appears likely to have only a modest impact on the roughly 10 Senate races that will determine control of the chamber. The possible exception is the race between Democratic Sen. Mark Udall and GOP Rep. Cory Gardner in Colorado, where Hispanic voters made up 14 percent of the electorate in 2012.
Even if President Barack Obama moves ahead with a proposal to give work permits to millions of immigrants living in the country illegally, removing the threat of deportation, Democratic strategists say Republicans won't reap much of a benefit. Republicans, they argue, have already squeezed as much as they can from voters angry at the president by hammering at his record on health care, the IRS, foreign policy and other issues.
"There's a ceiling, and nothing the president can do can get them above the ceiling," said Rep. Steve Israel of New York, head of the Democrats' efforts to win House elections. "But swing voters and persuadable voters, they want solutions."
Hispanics made up less than 3 percent of all registered voters in 2012 in seven other states with competitive Senate races: Louisiana, Arkansas, North Carolina, Iowa, Michigan, Georgia and Kentucky. So any Democratic benefits from an Obama executive action on immigration could be just as limited.
Ultimately, the party's rank-and-file refused to start Congress' five-week break without proving the GOP could pass some type of immigration bill. It would clear the way for eventual deportation of more than 700,000 immigrants brought here illegally as children. It also would allocate $694 million for border security efforts, including $35 million for the National Guard.
The action kept Republicans from ending the summer empty-handed on immigration. But that doesn't mean the party is any closer to untying the nation's immigration knot.
While solid majorities of Americans say the country's current immigration policies are unacceptable, many House Republicans owe their jobs to conservative activists who fiercely oppose "amnesty" for immigrants and dominate GOP primaries in districts where Democrats have almost no chance of winning.
Associated Press writers Bill Barrow in Georgia, Thomas Beaumont in Iowa, Steve Peoples in New Hampshire and Jim Kuhnhenn at the White House contributed to this report.