Opinion

Behind the latest GOP proxy war over immigration

The campaign to deny Jeff Sessions the chairmanship of the Senate Budget Committee reveals a schism within the party

Republicans are angry about President Obama's executive action on immigration. But soon that may not be the only immigration-related fight that roils the party.

Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions has been the ranking Republican on the Senate Budget Committee for the past four years, but there's no guarantee he will get the chairmanship when his party takes over the chamber next year. Wyoming Republican Sen. Mike Enzi is making his own play for the gavel.

Sessions happens to be the Republican senator who is most outspoken in his opposition to Obama's immigration initiatives. He would prohibit funding for Obama's executive action. He and Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas) have threatened to hold up any attorney general nominee who supports the plan.

Now, Enzi isn't saying his challenge is about immigration. "Under the Republican conference rules, he has seniority for the post and it is Sen. Sessions that is challenging him, not the other way around," an Enzi spokesman has been quoted as saying. "Sen. Sessions is currently the ranking member because Sen. Enzi did not exert his seniority two years ago."

But the fact is that Sessions is not on the same page on immigration as many of the GOP's major donors. Some party leaders also fear a hard line on immigration will be an obstacle to improving the Republican share of the Latino vote as the 2016 presidential election looms.

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus declared that comprehensive immigration reform was "still alive" the day after the party won big in the midterm elections. He subsequently backed off that claim somewhat, but it was hardly the first time he has pushed for reforms many conservatives consider amnesty.

Priebus oversaw an "autopsy" of the 2012 presidential election — in which GOP nominee Mitt Romney won just 27 percent of the Latino vote — that suggested Republicans needed to back immigration reform.

Republicans have been able to paper over their immigration divisions by shifting the conversation back to process. Even many Republicans who support comprehensive immigration reform oppose unilateral presidential action and believe it is counterproductive to the goal of advancing any kind of bipartisan bill.

But Sessions' immigration complaint isn't limited to process. In fact, the Alabama senator has argued the GOP should use immigration policy as a way to broaden its appeal to working-class Americans.

Sessions has repeatedly maintained that mass low-skilled immigration is bad for families' wages, and that the bipartisan bill passed by the Senate in 2013 will accelerate the decline of the working class.

At times, Sessions has openly challenged the GOP's pro-immigration donor class. He has urged the party to seek the votes of working Americans, not just employers seeking cheap labor.

Sessions also sees immigration as key to changing the perception of which party is in the pocket of corporate America.

"President Obama and congressional Democrats remain focused on the demands of activist CEOs who want new labor at the lowest price," Sessions said in a statement. "Republicans must sever themselves from these demands and present themselves to the American public as the one party focused on everyday working people."

Like Rick Santorum before him, Sessions is urging a lull in immigration as an alternative to the comprehensive approach.

"The sensible, conservative, fair thing to do after 40 years of record immigration is to slow down a bit, allow assimilation to occur, allow wages to rise, and to help workers of all backgrounds rise together into the middle class," he has said.

Sessions has emerged as the leader of a new group of Republican immigration restrictionists in Congress, focusing on wages, assimilation, and economic opportunity.

Incoming freshman Rep. Dave Brat of Virginia scored his GOP primary upset earlier this year over then–House Majority Leader Eric Cantor by folding parts of this message into a broader libertarian populist pitch.

Brat spoke out against direct corporate welfare, but also characterized amnesty and loosey-goosey immigration policy as an example of the incestuous relationship between big business and big government.

If Enzi replaces Sessions as Budget Committee chairman, it won't stop the Alabaman from pushing his immigration message. After all, Tom Tancredo didn't need a committee chairmanship and he was only in the House.

But losing the Budget gavel would deprive Sessions of a significant platform. And it would send an unmistakable message if Senate Republicans were to pass over one of the party's most effective immigration skeptics.

Considering that the last Republican-controlled Senate passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill in 2006, this ought to give anti-amnesty conservatives something else to be angry about.

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