A group of Republican senators is working alongside Democrats to try to protect hundreds of thousands of young immigrants from being deported in upcoming months, but the harsh lessons of a failed immigration reform push in 2013 loom large for a party barreling toward a midterm election.
For the last several months, familiar players in the immigration debate -- South Carolina's Sen. Lindsey Graham and Arizona's Sen. Jeff Flake -- have re-emerged, committed to finding a narrower legislative solution for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, a program that shielded young immigrants who came to the US illegally as children from deportation. But new faces have also joined in. Sen. James Lankford, a Republican from Oklahoma, a state with a relatively small immigrant population, is involved, as is Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, the leader of the Senate's campaign arm, and Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina, who worked as speaker of the House back in his state to pass immigration bills.
Republicans say immigration politics have changed drastically for the party
The struggles Sen. Marco Rubio faced running for president are one example
But in a climate where President Donald Trump swept the 2016 Republican primary with promises to build a wall at the southern border and applause lines to deport "bad hombres," the politics for GOP senators involved in the negotiations are precarious. Still hanging in the backs of many members' minds is the stark reality of what happened to a rising star in the Republican Party who stuck his neck out to fight to overhaul the country's immigration system.
Notably absent in this debate is Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida -- who spent most of his 2016 presidential campaign trying to answer for the Gang of Eight's 2013 immigration bill. From debates to campaign ads, it was Rubio who endured the brunt of the right's consternation.
"I frankly think Sen. Rubio would have been better off embracing and not apologizing for what we did. The Gang of Eight bill was a good bill. I think that Republicans can survive more than we think we can survive on immigration," said Flake, who will retire at the end of his term after facing a serious primary threat. "But on this, on DACA, look at this issue. This is a 70 to 80% issue across the board. People think kids shouldn't be punished for the actions of their parents."
One Democratic aide suggested the lesson from 2013 wasn't to avoid immigration reform. After all, Graham was able to run for re-election successfully in a primary in South Carolina after backing the 2013 bill. Instead, the Democratic aide said, the lesson was "if you are going to get involved in immigration, do it all the way."
Republicans working now say the politics of immigration reform have changed drastically for the party. Many have compared Trump's opportunity on immigration to that of former President Richard Nixon's d-tente with China, and Republican lawmakers hope that if they can convince the President to endorse a bipartisan immigration bill, it will offer political cover in the midterms from a mobilized base that has long opposed anything that gives immigrants who entered the country illegally a shot at legal status.
"At the end of the day, the base needs to recognize we would do nothing the President doesn't support and the President has strong support from the base," Tillis said when asked why he'd ever engage in talks on immigration after watching what happens to Republicans who got involved in the Gang of Eight negotiations in 2013.
On one hand, Republicans argue that Trump gives them the flexibility to pursue protections for immigrants eligible for DACA they never could have touched when President Barack Obama was in office. If the argument during the Obama administration was the base couldn't trust Obama to enforce immigration laws or secure the border, Republicans believe the base will follow Trump wherever he leads them on immigration.
"We all agree that this president is the first president in my adult life time who really is in a position to to deliver on the promise that every other president has made and failed to produce," Tillis said.
Even with Trump, however, there is still a liability in jumping headfirst into immigration reform. After the President attended a dinner with House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, in the fall and Democrats suggested Trump had agreed to support the DREAM Act, conservative news site Breitbart declared Trump was "Amnesty Don."
GOP Rep. Steve King of Iowa, a hard-liner on immigration, blasted Trump on Twitter: "@RealDonaldTrump Unbelievable! Amnesty is a pardon for immigration law breakers coupled with the reward of the objective of their crime."
Other conservatives suggested the President had violated his promise on the campaign trail.
For now, the bipartisan effort to protect DACA recipients is far narrower than anything the Gang of Eight attempted -- and the Republicans who are new to the talks insist on keeping it that way. In exchange for a potential path to citizenship for young immigrants, Republicans would get additional border security that included barriers, more personnel and technology. And anything agreed to, again, would have to have the blessing of the White House.
"I think it will be hard for Breitbart to attack Republicans who support Donald Trump's immigration plan," said GOP consultant and former Rubio spokesman Alex Conant.
Some also argue that DACA recipients themselves are easier to defend on the campaign trail, no matter how conservative your district is.
"I think it's much harder to arouse hostility against the DREAMers," former House Speaker Newt Gingrich told CNN. "But I also think the President is making real progress in controlling the border and dealing with illegals and going after MS-13."
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Florida Republican who has worked for years on immigration reform in the House and has seen the politics evolve, said he's been "encouraged" by how many Republicans still want to be involved despite the risks.
"The safe thing to do is just stay away from the issue, but I have been very encouraged by the number of Republicans who want to get involved," Diaz-Balart said.
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