Marco Rubio immigration bill imperiled by tea party defiance

Reuters

Senator Marco Rubio of Florida speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Maryland March 14, 2013.

Article Highlights

  • Elites of both parties are united in support of Marco Rubio's immigration bill.

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  • Historically, when K Street and the GOP leadership team up, they usually win.

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  • Speaker John Boehner, no enemy of K Street, has declared Rubio's bill DOA in the House.

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Elites of both parties are united in support of Marco Rubio's immigration bill. That sort of unity is remarkable in Washington, but not unheard of.

Here's the unprecedented part: The elites are going to lose.

The Tea Party has cultivated in House Republicans such a distrust of the establishment and such a disregard for party unity that even when the issue isn't a Tea Party issue — and immigration isn't, really — the GOP rank and file have little interest in doing what they're told.

How unified is the GOP elite behind Rubio's bill?

The Chamber of Congress, by far the largest lobbying organization in the country, is spending seven figures on TV spots supporting Rubio's immigration bill.

Karl Rove's American Crossroads organization is running a campaign supporting the bill. The group, funded by wealthy Republican donors, bought ad space to publish an open letter signed by top GOP executives, lobbyists, fundraisers and party leaders.
 
Bush cabinet official-turned-lobbyist Carlos Gutierrez launched a Super PAC last year called Republicans for Immigration Reform that is backing Rubio

Haley Barbour was chairman of the Republican National Committee, governor of Mississippi, and, of course, a lobbyist. Barbour is now running "Americans for a Conservative Direction," an advocacy group backing Rubio's bill. Meanwhile, the lobbying firm Barbour founded, BGR, is lobbying on immigration on behalf of tech companies.

Charlie Black, Ken Duberstein, Ed Rogers — pick a prominent Reagan or Bush I official now on K Street, and you can bet that he's lobbying for liberalized immigration laws.

Democrats also support the bill, almost without exception.

Historically, when K Street and the GOP leadership team up, they usually win. When they have Democrats on their side, they always win, however much the House Republicans may grouse.

Consider the history of the past twelve years, and you'll see elites aligning against more populist conservatives, and the House GOP eventually folding.

The Senate voted overwhelmingly to grant most-favored-nation status to China in 2000. House conservatives and the GOP base hated the idea. Tom Delay got the votes and passed it.

Republican Senators in 2003, urged on by the drug and insurance industries, expanded Medicare to include prescription drugs. Conservatives hated the bill. Pressure from the White House, the Senate, and K Street pushed the bill through the House.

The 2005 energy bill was loaded up with corporate welfare. K Street loved it. The Chamber loved it. The Senate ate it up. House Republicans were pushed and pulled until they passed it.

The Great Wall Street Bailout of 2008 had consensus support among the elites — K Street, Wall Street, the Chamber, the White House. The House opposed it at first, and then rolled over.

So, if history is a guide, House Republicans should just grouse about the immigration bill and then pass it, right?

But the House won't pass the Senate's immigration bill. The odds are against the House, Senate, and White House ever reaching agreement. So, what's different here?

First, immigration is historically a trickier issue. The Senate, the White House, and industry all supported an immigration bill in 2006, and that was a rare case of the House standing its ground under such circumstances. Also relevant: The 2006 immigration vote was after Delay, the master at winning votes, resigned.

Here's the biggest difference, though: Republicans elected since 2010 simply do not feel they need to answer to K Street, the GOP leadership, or any party elites. Newer Republican members came to Washington without the help of business PACs, often running against K Street in primaries and general elections.

Republican leaders also can't use pork to win over the rank and file, thanks to the earmark ban.

So, unlike the days when Bush, Armey and Delay dragged the GOP caucus around, the Republican rank and file today calls the tune for its leadership. Speaker John Boehner, no enemy of K Street, has declared Rubio's bill DOA in the House.

One telling wrinkle here: Tea Party organizations aren't uniting against the establishment GOP and industry organizations. FreedomWorks and the Club for Growth are staying out of the fight. Americans for Prosperity, funded by the Koch brothers, is on Rubio's side. Heritage Action and some local Tea Party groups are opposing Rubio.

So even the official anti-establishment organizations on the Right aren't united against the establishment in this fight — and the establishment may still lose.

It looks like the Tea Party really has changed Washington — and if you're the a Republican business lobbyist, that's no good.

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