A trio of Republican senators said this week they're willing to move forward on a comprehensive immigration reform plan that may include a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in America, providing further evidence that Republicans' poor showing among Hispanic-Americans in last week's election has forced the GOP into a more accommodating stance in the immigration reform debate.
The Hill newspaper reports Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, two seasoned veterans of past immigration reform battles, were joined by relative newcomer Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a Hispanic lawmaker who could bridge the divide between immigration reform advocates and the conservative wing of the GOP that has fiercely opposed past reform efforts.
"Everything ought to be on the table," said Hatch when asked whether he would support a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, the most controversial element of past reform proposals. "There are a lot of very important legal considerations that have to be made, but I've always been empathetic towards resolving this problem one way or the other."
McCain was similarly agnostic on the inclusion of a path to citizenship in an eventual bill, saying it was "too early" to get into specifics. But he indicated it was "very likely" the Senate will take up a comprehensive bill in the next Congress and nodded at the political imperative confronting the GOP: "There's a sense of urgency in the Republican Party for obvious reasons, and I'm sure that everybody's ready to deal."
The GOP's role in scuttling past immigration reform efforts (and their tenor in doing so) was widely blamed for Republicans' poor showing among Hispanic-Americans in last week's election. GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney lost the Hispanic vote almost three to one, and many analysts have recognized the electoral peril in continuing to dramatically underperform among the largest ethnic minority in America, warning that the GOP may become a permanent minority party if it is seen as the refuge of nativists.
And it's apparently not just Hispanic-Americans who want comprehensive reform: in a Washington Post/ABC News poll released Wednesday, a clear majority of Americans - 57 percent - support a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants as part of an immigration reform bill. Only 39 percent of respondents opposed the proposal.
Both McCain and Hatch have something of a tortured history on immigration reform. McCain co-sponsored a comprehensive immigration bill with the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., in 2005, but was forced to disavow his involvement during the 2008 Republican primary and embrace an enforcement-first approach, telling a skeptical Republican base, "I got the message, we're going to secure the borders." He further distanced himself from his past support for immigration reform in the face of a stronger-than-expected primary challenge from former congressman J.D. Hayworth during his 2010 Senate reelection bid.
Hatch, for his part, was an original co-sponsor of the DREAM Act that would confer citizenship to children of undocumented immigrants who agreed to serve in the military or pursue higher education, but he too was forced to wash his hands of past apostasy to survive a primary challenge earlier this year.
Rubio, who may be the most important player to watch given his popularity among the conservative base, began work on a Republican alternative to the DREAM Act last year but abandoned his efforts after President Obama sapped his momentum with an executive order granting visas to some undocumented immigrants brought here as children.
Despite that false start, some Republicans are hoping that Rubio's credibility with conservatives will provide cover for other lawmakers to play ball without fear of a mutiny on their right flank.
And Rubio certainly seemed willing to consider a comprehensive reform bill, telling The Hill, "The first steps in all of this is to win the confidence of the American people by modernizing the legal immigration issue and by improving enforcements of the existing law. And then, obviously, we're going to have to deal with 11 million people who are here in undocumented status." He added, "I think it'll be a lot easier to figure that out if we do those other steps first. But like I said, there are going to be a lot of opinions on this."