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Push on immigration reform risks new GOP split

Capitol Hill has for months been the focus of immigration advocates.

REUTERS/file

Capitol Hill has for months been the focus of immigration advocates.

WASHINGTON — A push to bring immigration legislation to the House floor, led by an unusual coalition of business executives, prominent conservatives and evangelical leaders, threatens to create another schism in the Republican Party and could have a noticeable effect on campaign contributions in advance of midterm elections.

Several Republican executives and donors who are part of a lobbying blitz coming to Capitol Hill next week said they were considering withholding, or have decided to withhold, future financial support to Republican lawmakers whom they believe are obstructing progress on immigration.

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“I respect people’s views and concerns about the fact that we have a situation in the United States where we have millions of undocumented immigrants,” said Justin Sayfie, a lawyer from Florida who said he had helped Mitt Romney raise more than $100,000 for his presidential campaign last year, in addition to helping other Republican candidates. “But we have what we have. This is October 2013. And the country will be better off if we fix it.”

Capitol Hill has for months been the focus of immigration advocates, urging lawmakers to take up one of the four measures that have been approved by the Republican-led House Judiciary Committee. What is different about next week’s lobbying effort is that it will include about 600 mostly conservative leaders in business, agriculture and religion who will focus on 80 representatives from 40 states — all of them Republican.

The effort comes just weeks after House conservatives alienated many longtime supporters, including much of corporate America, by trying to block financing for Obama’s health care law, a move widely blamed for the government shutdown. The intraparty tension that was apparent in the budget standoff could resurface in the immigration fight, although the sides might not align in exactly the same way.

Sponsors of next week’s event include the U.S. Chamber of Commerce; National Immigration Forum; FWD.us, a political action group set up by Silicon Valley executives including Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook; and the Partnership for a New Economy, which is led by New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, Rupert Murdoch and Bill Marriott Jr.

Pushing back against the pressure to act from within their own party, a core group of conservatives said in interviews this week that they would not be intimidated by corporate America or other outside parties, even though in this case that includes farmers, evangelical leaders and some prominent conservatives.

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“I care about the sovereignty of the United States of America and what it stands for, and not an open-door policy,” said Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Fla., one of several conservatives opposing all of the bills the House is considering.

Although House Republican leaders — including Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio and Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the majority leader — have expressed support for moving on their own immigration measure this year, given that the Senate has passed a comprehensive bill, the prospect for any legislation before year’s end is uncertain.

There is intense division within the party over the proposals under consideration, and some hard-line conservative members have made it clear they have no interest in advancing a key part of Obama’s agenda.

Even some who support a measure to increase border security say they would not vote for such a bill, fearing that it could become a vehicle to grant citizenship to an estimated 11 million immigrants in the United States illegally.

“We have seen the character of this president and the way that he does business,” said Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, explaining why he would oppose any measure.

Looking to restart discussion on immigration after months where it was overshadowed by foreign policy crises and the budget dispute, Obama spoke at the White House on Thursday and said Democrats and Republicans in the House must unite to pass an immigration package.

“Everybody wins here if we work together to get this done,” the president said.

The lawmakers who are the focus of next week’s effort have expressed support for immigration legislation or a willingness to consider it, said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum.

Roy Beck, a founder of NumbersUSA, a group that opposes the Senate legislation, acknowledged in an interview that the push by conservatives — evangelical leaders in particular — worried him somewhat, leading him this week to urge his million followers nationwide to step up their calls and emails to Congress.

“There is the potential this could shift some support,” Beck said.

Backers of the effort estimated that about 30 House Republicans, like King and Yoho, will not support immigration legislation under almost any condition. But they believe they can piece together a majority of the Republican caucus to pass certain bills, moving the debate to a committee of House and Senate negotiators, who could try to agree on a comprehensive package.

The contention centers on what to do with the illegal immigrants already in the country, which Democrats in both chambers say must be addressed in any final deal. Many House Republicans have expressed support for proposals to strengthen border security and make it easier for high-skilled workers and farm laborers to get visas, all elements of the Senate package.

There have been hints of possible compromise. Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., one of the House’s more conservative members, said he could support “a path to status” for immigrants who are here illegally.

None of the measures approved by the Judiciary Committee, with Republican support, includes a legalization component. Republican Reps. Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin and Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida have been working on legislation that includes a process by which immigrants here illegally could “get right with the law” and eventually become citizens.

A growing number of Republicans, however, privately say they see no political advantage for the party to move ahead on immigration legislation right now. They do not expect it to be a critical issue in the 2014 midterms — in fact, some House Republicans may be even more reluctant to take a tough vote on immigration during an election year — and they say it simply needs to be dealt with before the 2016 presidential elections. Thus, they say, they are most optimistic about pushing through an overhaul in 2015.

Those involved in the lobbying effort hope to alter those prospects.

“Doing nothing is not the answer,” said Glenn McCall, a retired banker and a Republican National Committee leader from South Carolina, who will be in Washington as part of the lobbying event. “We have done that, and you can see where we are.”

Terry Jones, a dairy farmer from Idaho who considers himself a member of the Tea Party movement and who will be in Washington next week, said he considered passage of the legislation an urgent matter.

“You wake up and it is 25 degrees, and a cow that is giving birth, and you have 400 cows to milk that day, and you don’t have the help you need — that stinks,” Jones said, citing a shortage of labor that he says could be eased through a new immigration law. “I bet not one of those legislators back there have been in that position.”

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