Did Rand Paul kill conservative opposition to immigration reform?

While things look pretty good now, there is still plenty of time for a backlash

Published March 20, 2013 9:25PM (EDT)

Sen. Rand Paul                   (Jeff Malet, maletphoto.com)
Sen. Rand Paul (Jeff Malet, maletphoto.com)

Rand Paul has some sort of magic touch, according to TPM's Benjy Sarlin, as his immigration reform turnaround apparently convinced a roomful of the sort of Republicans who refer to immigrants as "animals" that allowing many of them to seek citizenship wouldn't necessarily be a horrible idea.

Earlier this year I told everyone to be skeptical that immigration reform would pass, and one of the reasons I cited was the I thought rather obvious fact that House Republicans didn't support it. Now Rand Paul nearly has me convinced it could pass the House with more Republican than Democratic support.

Paul's primary argument was to convince very conservative politicians that they could get away with supporting immigration reform, even though the president wants it and many conservative voters don't. The strategy is to just use different words, basically.

There was some confusion among the participants over whether Paul supported a path to citizenship (he did, just not by name), but Rep. Raul Labrador (R-ID), the leading tea party conservative working on a bipartisan immigration bill in the House, didn’t seem to ruffle any feathers when he said he supported a plan that would allow undocumented immigrants to eventually become citizens.

“We shouldn’t create a second class group that could never become citizens, but we should also not give them a special pathway that nobody can follow,” Labrador told the audience, adding that any bill also needed border enforcement triggers that would be met before reaching that point.

“I think many of us are willing to consider what Raul just descibed there,” Jordan, the former chair of the conservative Republican Study Committee, said.

It is basically amazing to hear people like Rep. Jim Jordan saying that. Rand Paul getting these guys to even consider a path to citizenship (under the condition that we not call it that) is not something I would've predicted.

What these ultra-conservative members of Congress are doing is testing the water. They are cautiously expressing openness to immigration reform to see how loud and virulent the reaction will be, from their constituents and the right-wing organizations and interest groups that support them. Elite Republicans have always supported immigration reform. The problem, when Bush tried it, was that the activist base, as opposed to the donor base, really hates immigrants. Now we see if that's still true.

While I'm impressed, I'm still not entirely convinced reform is going to happen this year. These right-wing members could still easily get spooked and turn against any meaningful reform proposal. Iowa's Rep. Steve King -- prominent conservative and 2014 Senate candidate -- is loudly and vocally not on board.

The deal could still easily fall apart in the Senate, where most major legislation goes to die. Six conservative senators, including Ted Cruz, signed a letter to Patrick Leahy politely asking that the immigration debate in the Senate take a long time -- preferably a few years -- and diva senators like Lindsey Graham love to latch on to those sorts of arguments when they bail on legislative negotiations. If Reid is "moving too quickly," or not allowing Republicans to screw with the bill in various ways, a bunch of senators will have excuses to jump ship if they get spooked.

And then there's the conservative media. Michelle Malkin loved Rand Paul's filibuster. She hates "amnesty." So far, as far as I can tell, she just hasn't mentioned his recent immigration conversion. The National Review's Mark Krikorian has, though, and he doesn't care for it. Mickey Kaus is basically begging conservatives to come out against any reform, promising that the major Republican who does so will become the Next Reagan. Erick Erickson is pretending Rand Paul isn't calling for a path to citizenship (see? the "use different words" approach works!). But now it's sort of inescapable that Paul is not just endorsing citizenship, he's weakening conservative opposition to it. In other words, now is exactly the time when the anti-immigration right-wing press will begin to get louder and more hysterical.

Right now Rand Paul's popularity and star power is the best reason to be hopeful that conservatives will actually allow immigration reform to happen. But lots of observers didn't foresee the scope and severity of the conservative backlash in 2007. As a rule I usually figure the loudest and angriest people will win any given argument on the right.

By Alex Pareene

Alex Pareene writes about politics for Salon and is the author of "The Rude Guide to Mitt." Email him at apareene@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @pareene

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Immigration Immigration Reform Politics Rand Paul Steve King