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Hill Republicans Tight-Lipped On Immigration Change

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio (left) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on Capitol Hill in February. Republicans have been quick to criticize the president for bypassing Congress with his immigration action, but they've been unusually silent on the policy itself.
J. Scott Applewhite

Nearly a week has gone by since President Obama announced a new immigration policy that could halt the deportation of some 800,000 young people brought to the country illegally.

While Republicans on Capitol Hill were quick to criticize the president for bypassing Congress, they've been unusually silent on the question of whether these illegal immigrants should be getting such a break.

Republicans appear reluctant to get ahead of GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney on a key issue for Latinos, whose support for Romney remains uncertain.

Waiting For Romney

As leader of the Senate Republicans, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky normally is not shy about publicly scolding Obama. But neither he nor any other Republican has uttered a single word on the Senate floor about the president's executive action.

Asked by reporters why he's said nothing about the issue, McConnell replied that Romney would be talking about it Thursday at a meeting of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials in Orlando.

"We're going to wait and see what Gov. Romney has to say and then our members are going to be discussing his views on this. And I think many of them will have similar views; others may not," he said.

Romney himself has not made clear where he stands on the president's action.

Late last year at a town hall meeting in Le Mars, Iowa, Romney did make it clear he was against the DREAM Act — legislation that would provide a path to citizenship for people brought as children to the country illegally by their parents.

"The question is: If I were elected and Congress were to pass the DREAM Act, would I veto it? And the answer is yes," Romney said.

But on Sunday, in an interview on CBS's Face The Nation, Romney seemed to soften his hard-line stance.

"With regards to these kids who were brought in by their parents through no fault of their own, there needs to be a long-term solution so they know what their status is," Romney said.

Romney is well aware that the deportation of young immigrants is a big issue for Latino voters, and he was overheard a few weeks ago telling Republicans that if Latinos failed to embrace his candidacy for president, it "spells doom for us."

Grumbling On Both Sides

Obama's move on immigration appears to have caught Romney and many other Republicans by surprise.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Obama's move "puts everyone in a difficult position." Only a few weeks ago, Boehner dismissed the possibility of taking up the DREAM Act before the elections.

"I think we all have concerns for those who are caught in this trap, who through no fault of their own are here, but the president's actions are going to make it much more difficult for us to work in a bipartisan way to get to a permanent solution," Boehner said.

Democrats say Republicans have done nothing but stand in the way of getting the DREAM Act passed. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said now is not the time to walk away from the DREAM Act.

"But that's exactly what Republicans are doing. They're taking their marbles and saying, 'Well, OK, we'll just quit and go home,' " Reid said. "They've never been here anyway to go home. They haven't helped us anyway."

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., had been talking about introducing a somewhat less generous version of the DREAM Act. On Monday, he said he would no longer pursue that. But when asked Wednesday whether he would offer such legislation before the election, Rubio seemed to have had a change of heart.

"We'll see. I need to figure out what willingness there is to continue to focus on the issue now that the sense of urgency's been taken away. So, I hope so but I'm not sure," Rubio said.

Politics Over Policy?

Other Republicans say Obama is the one who failed to make good on a campaign promise to push through a comprehensive immigration overhaul his first year in office.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said that never happened, "so now for him to turn around, just a few months before the election for obvious political reasons and take this step is something that American people should be skeptical about."

For his part, Reid was asked by a reporter whether he would bring up the DREAM Act in the Senate before the election to get senators on the record.

"I don't want to answer that question. That's a clown question, bro," Reid said, stealing a phrase from Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper.

As Reid knows well, some vulnerable Democrats are also uneasy when it comes to immigration.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.
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