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House GOP’s Back Is to the Wall on Borders

Times Staff Writer

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.”

But other Republicans fear a different political risk -- that the party would suffer if it came up empty-handed after the long, emotional debate on immigration that has spilled from Capitol Hill into the streets of major cities.

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“At the end of the day, ‘no deal’ doesn’t work,” said Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.). “This will be a test for voters: Are Republicans capable of governing?”

House leaders have to navigate those crosscurrents as they prepare to iron out the vast differences between the House and Senate bills in conference committee.

It will be especially challenging because concern about illegal immigration is linked to broader economic anxiety that persists even in regions where the economy is running strong.

“In our state, as economically strong as any state of the union, there is an overwhelming feeling that this country no longer controls its own destiny,” said Steve Bell, chief of staff to New Mexico’s Republican Sen. Pete V. Domenici. “The war in Iraq. Other challenges from China and India for jobs. Another symbol of things being out of control is gas prices.”

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Minnesota Republican Rep. Gil Gutknecht said, “We’re 900 miles from the Mexican border, and it’s still a hot topic.”

He added, “One thing that’s fueling economic angst is the influx of foreign labor.”

Responding to a growing outcry over illegal immigration, the House late last year passed a bill that focused solely on tightening border security and cracking down on employers. The Senate bill, which President Bush supports, contains enforcement provisions as well, but it also would establish a program of temporary work visas and open a route to citizenship for most of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants already in the U.S.

With details of the final legislation expected to be resolved in conference, White House political advisor Karl Rove met Wednesday with House Republicans behind closed doors in an attempt to soften their opposition to the Senate bill. Although House members indicated some willingness to consider a guest worker program, they remained steadfastly opposed to any process for allowing illegal immigrants already here to become citizens -- which some consider amnesty.

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The clash between House and Senate Republicans’ approaches partly reflects their institutional differences. Because most House members come from small, homogeneous districts, pleasing their partisan base is paramount. Senators, who represent larger and more diverse populations, have a political incentive to be more sensitive to growing Latino populations.

The House-Senate conflict also pits the GOP’s long-term political calculations against its short-term interests.

For Bush, a more welcoming approach to immigrants may further his goal of luring Latinos to the Republican Party. Senators are in a better position to take that long view, because they serve six-year terms and only a third of them are up for reelection this year.

But with all House Republican seats up for grabs in November -- and with their majority considered more at risk than the Senate’s -- GOP representatives worry that Bush’s approach will undercut their short-term objective: getting reelected by voters clamoring for action to better secure the borders.

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“It is the hottest issue out there,” said Davis, who for years led the House GOP campaign committee. “Everybody’s talking about it. This isn’t just conservatives.”

Souder got a glimpse of that this month when he visited a large retirement center on what was deadline day for seniors to sign up for the Medicare prescription drug benefit. Souder got only one question about Medicare. The rest of the hour he fielded questions about immigration.

“There is a pot boiling out there,” Souder said. “We’ve got to secure the border first.”

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.

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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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It may, however, be hard for Republicans to pass blame, since they are perceived as being in charge of the federal government. And many are eager to counter the view, expressed in public opinion polls showing voters’ approval of Congress at a nadir, that lawmakers are not doing enough to solve the nation’s most urgent problems.

“People are looking for a result,” said Republican pollster David Winston. “It may take a few weeks, and tempers may wear thin, but there’s an understanding that something needs to be produced.”

Inaction, some Republicans warn, also could deal a blow to an already weakened Bush -- who saw another big domestic initiative, his Social Security overhaul, run aground on Capitol Hill.

“If we walk away from this, we will do to Bush on immigration what Democrats did to him on Social Security,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). “It would be a signal to the country at large that we as Republicans, who own the whole government, can’t solve hard problems.”

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