Republicans eye immigration reform after budget deal exposes party rift

• House speaker signals major break from conservative wing
• Break could be strategy to make immigration push in new year

Immigration reform has emerged as the next Republican battleground after a high-profile split between party leaders and the Tea Party over budget compromise led to growing expectation of a similar bipartisan deal to legalise America's 11 million undocumented migrants.

House speaker John Boehner signalled a major break from right-wing conservatives on Thursday when he accused activist groups of losing “all credibility” by opposing his efforts to reach a deal with Democrats over the $1tn federal budget.

Heritage Action, a group behind many Tea Party Republicans, issued a testy response on Friday, claiming Boehner was trying to clear the way for immigration reform next year by severing his links with opponents on the right of the party.

Some conservative commentators, such as Red State blogger Erick Erickson, have even speculated this was the prime motivation behind Boehner's surprise attack on the right, describing it as the “first real shots” in the party's forthcoming battle over immigration.

Boehner's office was not immediately available for comment on Friday, and there were plenty of other grounds for the falling out, but experts familiar with immigration reform point to a number of recent developments which suggest he is preparing to work with Democrats on the issue in the new year.

Perhaps most significant is Boehner's appointment last week of a high-profile immigration expert, Becky Tallent, who previously worked for senator John McCain when he last tried to pass comprehensive immigration reform under President George W Bush.

“It seems very unlikely that Becky would have gone to work for the speaker on this unless there was a serious plan to move on this in the new year,” Ted Alden, an immigration specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations, told the Guardian.

There was a similar key switch of personnel at the White House on Friday, which came as it signals a new willingness to meet Boehner halfway on immigration reform when the House returns after Christmas.

Miguel Rodriguez, the director of legislative affairs who led Obama's efforts to get immigration reform through the Senate, became the first senior White House official to lose his job this year when he was replaced by congressional veteran Katie Beirne Fallon.

Democrats have hinted at important concessions on immigration in recent days, most noticeably when Obama said he was relaxed about a preference among House Republicans to vote on each piece of the reform package separately rather than adopt the single bill passed by the Senate.

And Democratic congressman Luis Gutiérrez, a key advocate of reform in the House, indicated his party may even be prepared to drop its desire to see a path toward full citizenship for undocumented immigrants, settling for basic legal status instead, in order to achieve a deal with Boehner.

“Some have suggested that the way you thread the needle for Republicans between the immigration reform the country wants, which includes a path to citizenship, and the Republican's number-one priority, which is opposing what President Obama is for, is to offer a compromise that includes something less than citizenship,” he told the Migration Policy Institute in Washington last week.

“I don't think this is a good idea because citizenship is important, but I don't think it is a big deal-breaker either.”

In another sign of an impending climbdown on the issue of full citizenship, or “amnesty” as Republicans refer to it, Gutiérrez added: “Democrats have to put policy ahead of politics. If we as a party go the route of what is best for us politically in the short run, there is very little incentive to resolve the immigration issue.”

Republican leaders, especially those with presidential ambitions, have said they are keen to show progress toward legalisation to counter a dramatic drop in the party's popularity among Latino voters, but are sceptical of moves that would add more potential Democratic voters to the voting roll if they were granted full citizenship.

The piecemeal approach to legislation favoured by the House could therefore allow Boehner to strip out more radical citizenship proposals in the Senate bill and keep enough moderates on board to live without his party's Tea Party hardliners.

Contributor

Dan Roberts in Washington

The GuardianTramp

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