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Jonathan Chait to Republicans: Pass Immigration Reform, and Pass it Fast

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In the Senate Judiciary hearings on Friday, yesterday, and today, Gang of Hate members like Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) repeatedly spent time fearmongering and pushing his colleagues to delay immigration reform on account of the Boston bombings.  That’s his latest tactic for trying to kill the Senate legislation, as Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) noted yesterday.

Jonathan Chait at New York Magazine points to a “must-read report” from National Review’s Robert Costa, which acknowledges that Republicans are going to use delaying tactics to kill reform. But Chait argues that the momentum is with immigration reform-and delay imperils Republicans.  That, of course, doesn’t mean the bill will pass—but it does mean that consequences will befall those who get in its way.

Here’s Chait setting up the scene for how immigration reform came to be a priority this year.  Following the last election, in which Mitt Romney lost the Latino vote by more than a 3-to-1 margin, Republicans of all stripes started coming around to the idea that they must pass immigration reform if they are to someday have a better chance of winning Latino voters:

Immigration reform is not like gun control. Gun control popped suddenly onto the national agenda, and nothing about it made Republicans think they had to alter their stance. On immigration, Republicans fretted since the GOP primary that the party was alienating the growing Latino electorate in a way that fundamentally threatened the party’s national competitiveness.

There will be a fight within the Republican Party over whether to accept immigration reform, and the fight will take place inside the House of Representatives. But it’s a fight the pro-reform side is likely to win.

The portents are everywhere. Republican consultants are explaining their consensus belief that the party simply has to take immigration policy off the table in order to have any chance to reach Latino voters. “I think you’re seeing a pretty concerted effort … to try to put this issue behind us” said one. Opponents are losing heart. “There are some people who lost their will to fight this fight,” one conservative talk show host conceded to the New York Times, “They think they’ve lost it already and they’ve sort of thrown in the towel, including my fellow radio hosts.” Paul Ryan is appearing with Luis Guittierrez today to discuss immigration reform, and is praising the Senate’s Gang of Eight plan. Arch-conservative Jeff Flake has endorsed reform.

There’s still a long process ahead for the Senate immigration bill.  Markup in the Senate is starting in a few weeks, then comes a Senate vote.  The House must decide whether they’re going to pass the Senate’s bill or their own bill; if the House passes a bill, the House and Senate bills will likely go into conference committee.  There are a lot of pitfalls along the way for an immigration bill to get stuck, and plenty of Republicans (especially House Republicans) who will try to kill the bill.  But Chait notes, allowing Republicans to draw out the process—or stop the bill altogether—will be deadly for the GOP.

The whole point of immigration reform for Republicans —  other than, you know, helping people, which no doubt moves them very deeply —  is to rebrand the party. A drawn-out immigration debate commanding center stage will simply create more opportunities for conservative Republicans to say offensive things about Latinos. And make no doubt: however diligently their consultants coach them not to, they will say offensive things about Latinos. So far we’ve had one Republican member call undocumented immigrants “wetbacks” and another publicly muse that some of them may be secret Al Qaeda agents.

And we’ve only just begun! A whole summer of this stuff could drive the Democratic share of the Latino vote into the 80s.

When it comes to trying to pass immigration reform through the House, Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) is the key.  Boehner knows that he has to do something with immigration legislation in order to preserve the GOP’s demographic future.  And recent quotes and actions from him may indicate that he’s thinking the right way:

Roll Call reports, “Even while they say there is no explicit commitment from Boehner, members and aides who are part of or close to the bipartisan group seem to have confidence, even cockiness, that Boehner secretly has their back.”

And so the biggest tell so far may be Boehner’s comments today. Conservatives are using the Boston terror attacks as a pretext to delay reform. Boehner rejected that argument this morning. (“Primarily, I’m in the camp of, if we fix our immigration system, it may actually help us understand who all’s here, why they’re here, and what legal status they have.”)

Boehner has to tread a careful path here, not alienating conservatives to the point where they depose him as Speaker. But Boehner can tell which way the wind is blowing.