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Immigration Debate To Drag Into Next Presidential Election


And for more on where the immigration debate stands in Washington, NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson joined us from the White House. Good morning.


MONTAGNE: Now, Mara, it sounds like something of a mixed bag here. Some activists, who are, as we've just heard, very upset that President Obama wasn't able to do anything in 2013, or legislators didn't do anything, and others suggesting that they have patience when it comes to immigration reform.

LIASSON: Well, there is a kind of hope springs eternal caucus among immigration reformers, but I do think that the chances are extremely slim to none for this year. After all, there are only a handful of working days left for Congress in 2013. The chances next year maybe are a little better, but also slim.

And one of the things people forget is that after 2012, when Romney lost the Hispanic vote 71 to 27 percent and the Republican Party did that post-mortem autopsy report and recommended that the party embrace comprehensive immigration reform, the energy for that has really dissipated the farther away we have gotten from a presidential election and the closer we get to a congressional election where the political imperatives are just different.

House Republicans running for reelection don't really have to worry about the Hispanic vote because very few Republican's congressional districts include a lot of Hispanic voters. For Republicans who are looking to pick up seats in the Senate in the 2014 elections, and they feel very confident that they can pick up a number of seats - whether they can actually take back the majority we don't know - but the thinking is, why not wait till after 2014, when they have a bigger minority or even a majority and then they can write an immigration reform bill that's a little bit more to their liking.

MONTAGNE: So let's look at 2016 and those Republicans who would be thinking about facing an electorate as presidential candidates. I mean what are they going to do?

LIASSON: Well, Republicans feel, establishment Republicans, if they can get something passed by 2016 and they can have a nominee who can reach out to the Hispanic community, they can do just fine. But it's been a tough path because they have to get through a Republican presidential primary first. And you saw what happened to Marco Rubio, who took the lead in the Senate working with Democrats to pass the Senate immigration bill.

He tried to sell it to conservatives. He made the rounds of conservative talk show hosts, but in the end his approach was rejected and his stock inside the Republican Party fell. Now, that doesn't mean it can't recover. Then you saw Chris Christie. He has always taken an inclusive approach towards Hispanics. He won the Hispanic vote in New Jersey, something that he points to as a reason why he can do the same thing nationally.

But even he has been backing away from his previous support for a path to citizenship for undocumented workers. He's been asked about it. He's decided not to answer the question and Republican presidential candidates have to walk a fine line. They don't want to alienate the conservative voters who come out in primaries, but they have to position themselves so they can appeal to Hispanic voters in a general election.

MONTAGNE: Well, let's talk about the president. We've just heard from one leader of those pushing for immigration reform, that they are going to be looking to President Obama in 2014. We have seen him come out and say it might be okay to do this in a piecemeal approach, which at one point he said he would never do. He wanted comprehensive reform.

What's going on there?

LIASSON: Well, I think what the president is saying when he says, well, you can take a wing and then a leg and then a breast and finally we'll get the whole Thanksgiving turkey, he's not saying he'll settle for less than comprehensive reform. He can't sign anything without a path to citizenship. But what he is saying is if the House wants to pass this in pieces and then put it all together at the end, that's okay with him.

The president is trying to keep faith with the Dreamers, with the Hispanic community. This is something he has been promising to do since his first year in office and he hasn't been able to get it done. There are some things he can do administratively. He can suspend certain kinds of deportations and he has done that. But I think, in the end, if comprehensive immigration reform passes by the end of President Obama's term, it's not going to be because he had some kind of leverage to force Republicans to do this.

It's going to be because it was in both parties' self interests, particularly the Republican Party, that this thing gets passed. Either the Republicans pass some kind of comprehensive immigration reform or, as some people have said, they write themselves the longest suicide note in history.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's national political correspondent, Mara Liasson. Thanks very much.

LIASSON: Thank you, Renee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.
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