Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., took his case for an overhaul of the nation's immigration system straight to one of the most influential voices in Republican politics, conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh.
Their friendly exchange notwithstanding, Limbaugh remained opposed. And their exchange underscored a key facet of the coming debate over whether to allow a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants now inside the U.S.: Republicans are split on the immigration issue and the schism is not going to be easily healed.
Party leaders are well aware they've got to erase what former Secretary of State Colin Powell termed the "dark veil of intolerance" that colors the party's image in some circles and broaden their appeal to Latinos, a crucial and growing voting bloc that went overwhelmingly for President Barack Obama in November.
Republicans are split into two camps. There are those such as Rubio who will consider a path to citizenship along with tighter border security. They're willing to talk to Democrats over how to deal with illegal immigrants and have strong business community support as well as a willingness by key senators to listen.
Then there's the hard line, championed by Limbaugh and others, who insist on tougher border enforcement and suggest "paths to citizenship" are a euphemism for amnesty.
"The word compromise is thrown around, we have to compromise, seek common ground. Where is the common ground (with President Barack Obama)? I don't see it," Limbaugh told his large radio audience Tuesday.
Rubio, a guest on the show, had a delicate political line to toe. He answered carefully and appeared to please Limbaugh. Obama, Rubio said, "can either decide that he wants to be part of a solution, or he can decide he wants to be part of a political issue and try to trigger a bidding war. I'm not going to be part of a bidding war to see who can come up with the most lenient path forward."
But he is looking for a path forward, in a party that is deeply divided on the issue. Officeholders like Rubio in swing states are caught in the middle.
There's evidence the hard-liners' approach is softening, if only because the 2012 electoral results dramatically illustrated the need to woo Latino voters. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney won 27 percent of the Latino vote, and his poor showing helped him lose key states. In Nevada, for instance, where Obama delivered his immigration speech Tuesday, 19 percent of the presidential vote was Latino, and Obama won 71 percent.
Immediately after the election, many Republicans realized what they needed to do. Conservative talk show host Sean Hannity told his radio listeners two days after the voting that he had new thoughts about immigration.
"It's simple to me to fix it. I think you control the border first. You create a pathway for those people that are here. You don't say you've got to go home. And that is a position that I've evolved on," he said. "Because, you know what, it's got to be resolved."
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said a week later that the party needed to "hear what he (Obama) has to say" about immigration. Arizona Sen. John McCain, whose 2007 bipartisan effort at immigration legislation fizzled because of conservative opposition, saw new hope.
"There's a significant portion of the conservative movement at last open to a discussion. That's a big change," he said Tuesday.
But that conservative wing is still not entirely convinced, and it still sees political peril in getting too cozy with those who want a path to citizenship.
Daniel Horowitz blogged on the conservative site Redstate.com that Monday's news conference announcing the bipartisan plan was "a full-court circus." Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, charged the plan is "designed to satisfy the demands of illegal aliens and their advocates, and business interests that want more cheap labor."
The proposal could be a trap, Limbaugh said. "So the question is, does he (Obama) really want any kind of a solution to the problem, or is this really attractive to him as an ongoing issue for him to fulfill his dream of just eliminating any viable political opposition in the media, the Republican Party, or whatever, because they've admitted that that's what their objective is. Just wipe you guys out," he argued.
Rubio gently argued otherwise. By taking the initiative, people will see what "we have put something that is very common sense and reasonable."
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