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By Steve Peoples
NEW YORK — The push toward immigration votes in the House is intensifying the divide among Republicans on one of the party’s most animating issues and fueling concerns that a voter backlash could cost the GOP control of the House in November.
To many conservatives, the compromise immigration proposal released this past week by House Speaker Paul Ryan(R-Wis.) is little more than “amnesty.”
One Tea Party group described the Republican plan as “the final betrayal.” Fox Business host Lou Dobbs, who is close to President Donald Trump, tweeted Friday that Ryan is “trying to open our borders even more and give illegal immigrants the biggest amnesty in American history.”
The tension threatens to exacerbate the GOP’s political challenges this fall, when their majorities in the House and Senate could be at risk.
Passage of the bill could alienate conservatives and depress turnout at a time when enthusiasm among Democrats is high. Yet scuttling the bill could turn off independent voters, an especially important bloc for House Republicans competing in dozens of districts that Democrat Hillary Clinton won in the 2016 presidential election.
“The GOP’s in a tough spot,” said Republican pollster Frank Luntz. “The hardcore Trump voter has a different point of view than the ever-important independent voter, and there doesn’t seem to be a middle ground.”
The draft legislation, resulting from intense negotiations between moderates and conservatives, includes a path to citizenship for an estimated 1.8 million young immigrants in the country illegally. The plan includes $25 billion for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and other security measures sought by the White House.
“While the bill contains some positive provisions, including full funding for the border wall and closing loopholes in current law that sustain illegal border surges, it is still a mass amnesty,” said RJ Hauman, of the conservative Federation for American Immigration Reform.
“This bill hardly fulfills President Trump’s bold promise to fix immigration, and sure isn’t a winning message for the GOP in the midterms,” Hauman said.
Republicans had trumpeted Trump’s support for the plan, yet he told reporters early Friday he would not sign it if it reached his desk. Later in the day, the White House said he was confused by a reporter’s question and clarified his support.
Skittish conservative lawmakers have indicated there’s little chance they would support the current plan unless Trump were to give it a full embrace — a tall order, given the confusion Friday about the president’s position.
“House Republicans are not going to take on immigration without the support and endorsement of President Trump,” said Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., the GOP’s chief deputy vote counter.
The politics of the immigration debate have grown more heated since the administration adopted a “zero tolerance” approach at the Southern border. The policy is leading to an increase in the number of detained immigrants being separated from their children.
Trump has tried to blame Democrats for his own administration’s policy, tweeting Saturday that they “can fix their forced family breakup at the Border by working with Republicans on new legislation, for a change!”
Facing a national uproar, House GOP leaders included a provision in the immigration proposal that would require families to be kept together for as long as they are in the custody of the Homeland Security Department.
The proposed fix won approval from moderate House Republicans locked in difficult reelection battles, but not from Republican Senate candidates running competitive races in GOP-leaning states. None spoke in support of the bill.
“We’re studying the proposal,” said Arizona Rep. Martha McSally, who is viewed as the GOP establishment’s favorite in one of the top Senate races. “I try not get swayed by what the emotions are or the pressure. I really try to look at the policy issues.”
Kelli Ward, one of McSally’s main opponents in the Arizona Senate primary on Aug. 28, was more scathing in her assessment.
“Compromising on the rule of law to grant amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants is the wrong path to take,” she said of the House plan. “Congress should focus on border security and stop talking about amnesty as a solution.”
In Pennsylvania, Rep. Lou Barletta, the Republican nominee against Democratic Sen. Bob Casey took an equally aggressive approach against his own party’s immigration plan.
“I hate it,” he told The Associated Press. “What does it accomplish? It’s amnesty.”
Barletta said he has compassion for the children caught up in the immigration debate. But he said he wouldn’t support an immigration bill unless it also blocked employers from hiring immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally, eliminated “sanctuary cities” and ended family-based migration.
Barletta said his party should “absolutely” fear a political backlash from its base this fall should Republicans push through the current compromise.
Other high-profile Republican candidates avoided questions about the immigration plan altogether, highlighting the political sensitivity of the issue.
The Republicans who declined to comment or ignored AP questions included Senate candidates Patrick Morrisey of West Virginia, Josh Hawley of Missouri, Mike Braun of Indiana and Matt Rosendale of Montana.
In an election year in which Democrats appear to have an advantage on voter enthusiasm, Republicans can ill afford to alienate any voters this fall, particularly their most passionate supporters.
Former White House counselor Steve Bannon lobbied against the compromise in private meetings with House conservatives earlier this past week.
He warned that Republicans “will lose the House and Trump will be impeached” if the House backs the new measure, according to Iowa Rep. Steve King, an immigration hardliner who was in attendance.