House GOP’s Back Is to the Wall on Borders

Janet Hook, Los Angeles Times, May 25, 2006

WASHINGTON—Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.) just got a wake-up call about the political risks of Congress’ immigration debate. Having been hammered by constituents for his moderate stand on illegal immigration, Souder this month got 7,100 fewer votes in the GOP primary than in 2004, when he ran against the same challenger.

His experience helps explain why so many House Republicans adamantly oppose any compromise that would allow illegal immigrants to earn legal status. They have concluded it could be political suicide to give ground to the Senate immigration bill, expected to pass today, which would do just that.

“The mood is so angry, we can’t hold the House with any bill” like that, Souder said. “The Senate bill would be worse than nothing.”

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Souder, one of 17 Republicans to vote against the House bill last year, is not the only GOP lawmaker who has seen political backlash over the issue.

In Utah, Rep. Chris Cannon faces a serious primary challenge from a political novice because of Cannon’s support for a guest worker program. At the state GOP’s nominating convention this month, Cannon suffered an embarrassing upset when he was outpolled, 52% to 48%, by businessman John Jacob. Because neither candidate won 60% of the vote, they will face off in June.

In Nebraska, Rep. Tom Osborne—a well-known former college football coach—lost a promising bid to wrest the GOP gubernatorial nomination from incumbent Gov. Dave Heineman. Their differences over immigration played a big part: Osborne supported a state measure to allow illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition at public colleges and universities; Heineman vetoed the bill.

In Idaho’s primary Tuesday, Republicans choosing from a crowded field for an open House seat rejected one candidate—Robert Vasquez, a county commissioner—who had made his name with aggressive efforts to crack down on illegal immigrants. But his presence in the race put pressure on all the other candidates to take a hard line against illegal immigration.

Some House Republicans think the best political course may be to put off final action on immigration until after the November election. Another strategy would be to craft a compromise that is as strict as the House wants—even if it causes the bill to lose Democratic support in the Senate. If it died, the thinking goes, Republicans could blame the Democrats for blocking border protections.

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