The dam may be crumbling in front of the reservoir of Republican resistance to an immigration overhaul that allows almost 11 million people now in the country illegally to get on the road toward citizenship.
Three significant cracks have emerged in the past 24 hours, potentially the most important one this morning. Rand Paul, who’s made plain his interest in becoming the tea party’s next presidential candidate, spoke emphatically in favor of that idea in a speech to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. “Prudence, compassion and thrift all point us toward the same goal: bringing these workers out of the shadows and into becoming and being taxpaying members of society,” the Kentucky senator said.
One day earlier, an embrace of “comprehensive immigration reform” — the code phrase for a policy overhaul that includes eventual citizenship for illegals — was the singular legislative policy proposal included in the Republican National Committee’s recommendations for spurring a GOP revival, which was otherwise entirely about campaign tactics, rhetorical shifts and branding.
Also on Monday, a coalition called Evangelical Immigration Table, which includes some the country’s most prominent conservative Christian groups, for the first time explicitly urged Congress to put “clear steps to citizenship” for illegal immigrants in any overhaul package.
Beyond the breadth of support represented by that trio, it’s important to note that they offered somewhat different rationales for their new-found stances. Paul said he was interested in growing the economy, boosting the federal tax base and improving the American work ethic, declaring, “I’ve never met a new immigrant looking for a free lunch.” The RNC conceded that the endorsement was a bow to its horrible standing in the polls with Latinos. “If we do not,” its 100-page report warned, “our party’s appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only.” And the evangelicals said their embrace was “rooted in our biblically informed commitment to human freedom and dignity.”
Taken together, that trio of endorsements should be the final push of support required to overcome the conservative “citizenship amounts to amnesty” default setting of the past seven years, ever since the Senate passed a bill pushed by President George W. Bush that’s very similar to what’s being discussed now.
And the strong rhetoric should provide the last bit of negotiating time and space required before a deal is finalized among the Senate’s newest "gang of eight," the quartet from each party who have been laboring over the finer points of a comprehensive plan and hope to unveil it right after the congressional spring recess, in early April. Those include just how long and hurdle-filled the path to citizenship should be, and how closely to condition the creation of that process to evidence that the southern border has become more secure than ever.
Paul made clear Tuesday that he’s eager for those conditions to be made tough enough that he’ll want to embrace the group’s work. That’s only a slightly more emphatic reiteration of what he’s been saying for months. What makes it significant is this: his 25 percent “victory” in the Conservative Political Action Conference straw poll over the weekend, and the fact that the very close runner up, Sen. Marco Rubio at 23 percent, is the central figure among the eight Senate negotiators.
Paul is not putting distance between himself and one of his presumed presidential rivals. He’s trying to get as close as he can to his Florida colleague, a clear sign he’s assuming they’ll both be on the same popular side of an issue that will be behind the GOP by the time the 2016 contest begins.