Maybe Dana Rohrabacher, the Republican congressman from Orange County best known for his surfing photo-ops, has wiped out once too often. Or maybe his ultra-safe political turf keeps him from seeing the reality that stares his party in the face when it comes to the issue of immigration.
Whatever the reason, Rohrabacher demanded early in the House of Representatives’ discussion of immigration changes that his fellow Republican, Speaker John Boehner, poll the GOP’s 234 congress members before he allows a House vote on any immigration bill.
That would follow the so-called “Hastert rule,” – named after former Republican Speaker Dennis Hastert – which says no bill of any kind should ever get a vote without the backing of a majority of the majority party.
Doing this would likely mean no immigration bill containing any kind of pathway to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants will pass so long as Republicans hold a House majority.
Boehner quickly succumbed to the pressure. “I don’t see any way of bringing an immigration bill to the floor that doesn’t have majority support of Republicans,” he told reporters.
Call this a presidential election suicide pact, for doing it might mean no Republican will be elected President for quite a while to come. That, at least, is the contention of Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina, one of four Republicans in the so-called “Gang of Eight” that crafted most of the immigration bill which passed the Senate in late June.
“If we don’t get (immigration reform) in a reasonable, practical way, it doesn’t matter who you run in 2016,” Graham said. “We’re in a demographic death spiral as a party and the only way we can get back in good graces with the Hispanic community is to pass comprehensive immigration reform.”
How can that be correct, when Republicans easily hung onto their House majority last year, even as President Obama was handily reelected? Mainly, it’s because gerrymandered districts in states where Republicans control legislatures guarantee huge GOP edges in their congressional delegations. That gives the GOP clout in the House far exceeding its share of popular votes cast for Congress.
Rohrabacher is effectively sealed off from the sort of pressures Graham cites because his coastal district is so heavily Republican.
That left him free to launch a gnarly wave toward Boehner, who was about to stage his first-ever meeting with the all-Democratic Congressional Hispanic Caucus. For conservatives like Rohrabacher, it’s almost treasonous to let the Democrats’ 201 House votes count for anything – and the only immigration bills that stand a chance of passing the House without Democratic support would do things like making felons of anyone in this country without proper documents.
Rohrabacher told a conservative radio host that Boehner would face a party revolt if he allows a vote on any bill like the Senate one. “I would consider it a betrayal of the Republican members of the House and a betrayal of Republicans throughout the country,” Rohrabacher said. “If Boehner moves forward…he should be removed as speaker.”
That sentiment flies in the face of national polls, unanimous in finding a large majority of Americans favors a path to citizenship for the undocumented, especially if it is as arduous a path as the Senate bill would make it: Heavy fines, waiting periods of about 13 years for many, thorough background checks and more.
With Boehner caving to the pressure from Rohrabacher and other ultra-conservatives, Graham’s prediction of GOP disaster may come to pass. One survey by the Latino Decisions polling firm, for example, found that as many as 40 percent of Hispanic voters would be willing to give GOP presidential candidates a new look – but only if the party takes a leadership role on immigration changes.
Latinos, the fastest growing ethnic voter bloc in America, still vote in numbers far below their percentage of the population. As more register and vote, they will gain even more importance than they had last year, when Obama’s 77-23 percent majority among them was instrumental in his reelection.
The bottom line for Republican purists is simple: If they insist on treating all the undocumented as criminals or something similar, they very likely will doom their party to at least one more presidential wipeout.
But if they surprise and prove willing to compromise, it could be Democrats who fall off the wave.