Feb. 10--With GOP congressional leaders now saying immigration reform isn't likely to happen this year, some California Republicans may be feeling they've been thrown under the bus.
The electoral math seems to spell another year of inertia on the incendiary issue even though polls show that most Americans -- particularly Latinos -- believe it needs action. With Democrats needing 17 more seats to take control of the House, Republican leaders seem willing to risk losing a few swing districts over immigration -- better that, they believe, than fuel tea party primary challengers who could lose a larger number of otherwise safe GOP seats in November.
That could be unwelcome news for incumbents like Jeff Denham, R-Modesto, and David Valadao, R-Hanford, who represent heavily Latino districts that political experts consider "in play."
"This is potentially big trouble for those guys because their party will be held accountable," said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, the House Judiciary immigration subcommittee's top Democrat. "Their party is in charge. Their party sets the agenda."
Still, "two or three Republicans going down in California does not swing control of the House," said veteran political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe at the University of Southern California. "You've got incumbents in other states who are vulnerable only in the Republican primary to someone who might be more conservative than they are, so the (House) speaker and the (Senate) minority leader can't put them at risk."
National GOP leaders, meanwhile, don't want to see a year of intraparty battles over immigration policy spoil their chances of picking up the six seats they need to rule the Senate. And most of the states in which they're seeking those pickups have less influential Latino electorates.
"The California Republicans are on their own regarding this issue of immigration reform," Jeffe said. "I don't think we even enter into the computation."
It didn't seem that way just 11 days ago, when House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, unveiled his caucus' principles for immigration reform, a potential road map to legislation. But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said last Tuesday that he doubted a deal could be struck this year because the Senate wants a comprehensive bill while House Republicans insist on going step-by-step. And Boehner two days later said it'll be hard to move any immigration bill while Republicans doubt whether the Obama administration can be trusted to enforce immigration laws.
"Why don't we just pack up and go home?" House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, retorted at a news conference later Thursday. "What we're supposed to do is legislate and not make up excuses as to why we don't."
Democrats now hold 38 of California's 53 House seats. But even if they picked up a few seats here, getting 17 to retake the House in November will be tough in the sixth year of a two-term Democratic president's tenure, when history suggests momentum will be with the GOP.
Indeed, the respected Cook Political Report considers far more seats now held by Democrats to be toss-ups than seats now held by Republicans. The only Republican now seen as leaning toward losing is Gary Miller, of Rancho Cucamonga. His district is more than half Latino, so GOP intransigence on immigration reform might put him in an even deeper hole.
Valadao's 21st District as of late last week was considered to be leaning Republican and Denham's 10th District was considered a likely GOP victory -- but that could now change. Like Miller's, their districts are among only a handful nationwide that are held by Republicans but have big Latino populations -- about 73 percent in Valadao's district and about 41 percent in Denham's.
Denham and Valadao late last year were two of only three House Republicans who co-sponsored the House version of a bipartisan immigration bill that the Senate approved in June.
"On immigration, the leaders are asking them to take one for the team," Jack Pitney, a Claremont McKenna College professor and political expert, said Friday. "Even so, members of Congress are judged on their own positions, not those of party leaders. ... That gives them a little bit of insulation, though they probably wish the leadership had acted differently."
Bill Whalen, a longtime GOP media operative who now is a Hoover Institution research fellow, said: "It's going to force those particular Congressmen to go home and work their district in ways even harder than they usually do."
He and Jeffe said that might mean focusing on issues less harmful to them, such as the nation's new health care law and California's drought. In any case, the battle starts now.
Denham spokeswoman Jordan Langdon said Friday that the Congress member always knew passing immigration reform would be "a challenge," but he's "committed to working with leadership and members of both parties who share his goal of passing real and effective reform that secures our border, strengthens our economy and fixes our broken system."
But Eric Goldman -- campaign manager for Denham's Democratic challenger, Michael Eggman -- said "there certainly will be a price to be paid" if GOP leaders abandon immigration reform in 2014.
Josh Richman covers politics. Contact him at 510-208-6428. Follow him at Twitter.com/josh_richman. Read the Political Blotter at IBAbuzz.com/politics.
(c)2014 The Oakland Tribune (Oakland, Calif.)
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Original headline: California: GOP incumbents may be harmed by party abandoning immigration deal in D.C.
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