WASHINGTON – The immigration debate is threatening to split the Republican Party, pitting those who focus mainly on presidential elections against those who care mostly about congressional races.
Strategists say that if Republicans are to win presidential elections, which they've been losing lately, partly because of dismal support from Hispanic voters, they must soften their rhetoric about illegal immigrants and embrace some version of "immigration reform."
But granting illegal residents a path to citizenship, which critics call "amnesty," is deeply unpopular in many House Republicans' districts.
President Barack Obama wants such a pathway. So do some prominent GOP lawmakers who are seeking a way out of their party's jam.
The plans differ on when and how citizenship might occur, with border security a central issue. Resolving these differences may determine whether a major law is enacted in the coming months.
Some GOP strategists fear they will lose either way.
If by the next election Latino voters think Republicans opposed and possibly blocked a comprehensive immigration overhaul, they might turn against the party in even bigger numbers.
On the other hand, converting millions of illegal Hispanic residents into citizens might produce large numbers of new voters who will lean Democratic for years.
"This is a perilous debate that Republicans have entered into," said John Ullyot, a Republican consultant and a former Senate aide.
Obama won 71 percent of the Hispanic vote last November and 67 percent in 2008. GOP campaign professionals say Republicans are dooming themselves if they don't show a more welcoming face to this fast-growing segment of voters.
"Republicans need to solve this issue, politically, if they wish to win national elections, and they know it," said Texas-based GOP consultant Matt Mackowiak.
Winning House elections, however, is a different matter.
A number of Republican lawmakers and aides say "amnesty" for illegal immigrants triggers strong resentment among their constituents. The upcoming debates could stir passions further, even in swing districts.
Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, lost his Cincinnati-area seat to a Democrat in 2008, then regained it two years later. He opposes giving illegal immigrants an eventual route to citizenship.
"It is unfair to allow those who have willfully and intentionally broken our nation's immigration laws to, in essence, cut in front of those who have been patiently and legally waiting their turn to become U.S. citizens," Chabot wrote on his House blog. Republicans should appeal to Hispanic voters "on principle," he said, not by agreeing to liberal immigration policies. "Republicans are better for Hispanics because our policies are better for them," Chabot said.
Republican leaders hope to minimize internal conflicts by finding a compromise that Obama and the Democratic-controlled Senate will accept.
A bipartisan group of senators has proposed a plan that would allow illegal immigrants to pursue citizenship only after steps, yet to be detailed, are taken to further secure the border with Mexico. The plan is backed by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., whose parents were born in Cuba. He is seen as leading player on immigration.
Some other high-profile conservatives, including Fox News' Sean Hannity and the 2012 GOP vice presidential nominee, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, have spoken favorably about Rubio's approach.
Democrats insist that the border security prerequisites not be onerous. They worry that Republicans will never agree that border enforcement is strong enough to start the citizenship process for illegal immigrants. Similarly, some Republicans say they fear Democrats won't deliver tougher security once illegal immigrants are allowed the first step toward legal status.
Republican strategists say respectful rhetoric in the coming debates is crucial to wooing Hispanic voters who feel previous GOP comments revealed anti-immigrant feelings.
"If the tone of the debate is thoughtful," then Republicans can survive politically even if they reject "blanket amnesty," campaign adviser Terry Nelson said.
Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon, who heads the GOP's 2014 House campaign efforts, said the party must communicate better with minorities.
"Obviously we've got to address this," he said of immigration changes. "We've got 50,000 young Hispanics reaching voter age every month."
Some conservative pundits, however, say turning illegal immigrants into voting citizens will hurt the GOP, not help it.
Latinos "are disproportionately low-income and disproportionately likely to receive some form of government support," the magazine National Review said in an editorial. "Take away the Spanish surname and Latino voters look a great deal like many other Democratic constituencies."
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, says he's ready to tackle big changes in immigration laws. But the effort may conflict with another of his goals: passing major legislation only if most House Republicans support it.
House insiders say many, and perhaps most, Republican lawmakers will want to vote against a citizenship-granting immigration bill, even if they quietly hope it passes and helps their party at the presidential level.
Such "vote no, hope yes" groups are well-suited for passing difficult measures with a modest number of Republican votes and many Democratic votes. It happened twice in January: on a hurricane aid bill and a vote on the "fiscal cliff."
At a recent House Republican retreat in Virginia, Boehner brought in independent political analyst Charlie Cook to explain to lawmakers why they face serious trouble with Hispanic voters.
Cook said House Republicans make a mistake if they view national issues such as immigration "through the prism of your district," said a participant at the private session. Republicans eventually can improve their standing with Latinos if they stop talking and acting as though they don't like immigrants, Cook told the House members.
"Holes tend to fill in over time if people stop digging," Cook was quoted as saying to the lawmakers.
White House's immigration plan: http://tinyurl.com/6xboukg