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Thursday, December 8, 2016

Congratulations are in order for conservatives. Their legal challenges to President Obama on health care and immigration have a real chance of gutting his policies, and in the first few weeks of the all-Republican Congress, the GOP has made its differences with Obama very clear. What’s not clear is how House and Senate Republicans plan to demonstrate competence and problem-solving ability. Even fuzzier is how any of this will help their eventual nominee for president.

Nothing could be more effective than Obama’s veto pen in underscoring how important it is for a party to occupy the White House. Yet many of the Republican activities of the past few weeks are designed to fire up conservatives. They don’t aim to broaden the reach of the GOP, and could shrink it. The endless war on the Affordable Care Act and the determination to roll back the administration’s new immigration initiatives both fall into that category. So does the sense that the party is unprepared to deal with the consequences of success.

Today let’s focus on immigration, which has been a sore point for Republicans in national races. The most immediate quandary is the partial shutdown threat hanging over the Department of Homeland Security, which enforces immigration laws. It’s been only three months since the GOP captured the Senate and incoming Majority Leader Mitch McConnell pledged there would be no shutdowns on his watch. So how did we get here? In brief, a divided Congress did not pass comprehensive immigration reform in Obama’s first six years; Obama moved on his own late last year to shield up to 5 million illegal immigrants from deportation; House Republicans passed a bill that funds DHS after Feb. 27 but also blocks Obama’s immigration actions; and Senate Democrats blocked the bill.

Obama this week postponed the launch of his new plan in light of U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen’s order halting it on the grounds that, among other things, it burdens states. But the administration is appealing and may request a stay, so the Obama plan is far from dead. Whatever congressional Republicans do, a CNN/ORC poll shows they would shoulder most blame for a shutdown — 53 percent compared with 30 percent who would blame the president. So maybe they’ll use Hanen’s order, temporary though it may be, to approve a funding bill and put the shutdown dilemma behind them.

Yet even if they do, and that’s a big if, that still leaves the root problem of how the Republican Party relates to immigrants. The way forward seemed obvious after Mitt Romney lost Hispanics and Asians to Obama nearly 3 to 1 in 2012: Pass reform that offered a path to citizenship or another form of legal residency to some of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. That is what the Republican National Committee recommended in a post-election autopsy. But the party has moved in the opposite direction. The House even voted — twice — to kill Obama’s 2012 program that has given temporary legal status to some 700,000 undocumented young people who were brought to the United States by their parents as children.

Millions of the people here illegally, possibly up to 40 percent, arrived legally and have overstayed their student, business or tourist visas. About half of all undocumented immigrants are from Mexico, about a quarter are from Central and South America, and more than 10 percent are Asian. And they are very much a part of the larger immigrant community. In a 2014 Latino Decisions/Center for American Progress Action Fund poll of registered Latino voters, when asked to “think about your family, your friends, co-workers, and other people you know,” 62 percent said they knew an undocumented immigrant.

The media are already highlighting sympathetic examples of hardworking people affected by Obama’s executive actions and Hanen’s order to stop them. The political impact of these tales and the policies they reflect reverberates far beyond immigrants here illegally, and their friends, family and colleagues. The policies and rhetoric make the GOP seem callous, and therefore less appealing to moderate swing voters.

Republicans are fortunate to have a couple of presidential prospects that might soften that perception of harshness. One is Florida senator Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American who was key to Senate passage of an immigration reform bill that died in the House. The other is former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who speaks fluent Spanish, has a Mexican wife, and supports immigration reform. He can also claim a father who called for “a kinder and gentler nation” and a brother who ran as a “compassionate conservative” champion of immigration reform. The family legacy is an albatross, no doubt, but Jeb may yet convince Republicans that this particular baggage helps make him the best choice they’ve got.

Follow Jill Lawrence on Twitter @JillDLawrence. To find out more about Jill Lawrence and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

Photo: Speaker John Boehner via Flickr