Immigration reform is facing its toughest challenge yet as resurgent conservatives threaten to crack delicate bipartisan alliances in the House and Senate.
On the Senate side, Florida Republican Marco Rubio took the unusual step this week of threatening to vote against his own immigration reform bill unless new security measures are added, setting up a new standoff just as the floor debate begins Friday. In the House, Republicans passed an amendment that would threaten millions of young undocumented immigrants with deportation while their own reform talks hit a wall. The sudden spate of setbacks after months of relative calm is stoking fears among some activists that the GOP's appetite for reform may be fading.
This isn't the first time Rubio, the most conservative member of the bipartisan Senate group known as the Gang of Eight and its unofficial ambassador to the Tea Party, has made noises about going rogue. He did the same thing in February after the White House leaked an immigration plan that didn't tie a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants to a border "trigger" and again in March when he backed conservative demands for a lengthier hearing process. In both cases he quickly returned to the fold.
It's possible tweaks are needed to attract the final GOP votes and reformers aren't surprised to see Rubio differentiate himself from Democrats on immigration from time to time in order to reassure his conservative allies. But even if his intentions are pure, they fear Rubio might unwittingly hand GOP hawks the weapons they need to kill his bill.
Backers of the Gang of Eight bill are especially concerned by Rubio's public encouragement of Sen. John Cornyn's efforts to draft new border security mechanisms for his bill. On Wednesday, Cornyn, a Texas Republican, introduced an amendment that would toughen up the "trigger" in ways that reform supporters warn would make it dramatically harder for undocumented immigrants to eventually apply for citizenship. Rubio hasn't backed the move yet, but his strong rhetorical support for Cornyn could lead on-the-fence Republicans to conclude that the amendment should be the minimum price for their votes, potentially sparking a backlash on the Democratic side. It doesn't help that Cornyn made similar demands throughout the 2005-2007 immigration debate only to vote against the final legislation every time.
"The question is whether Rubio has the chops as the freshman senator to play a very high stakes game," Frank Sharry, executive director of immigrant advocacy group America's Voice, told msnbc. "The trigger is tied to the path to citizenship, so if you mess with the trigger, you mess with the whole reason we're at the table."
Despite the dustup, Democrats and Republicans backing the Gang of Eight bill remain confident they can get to 60 votes before the July 4 recess. But the bill's sponsors don't want to just pass a bill, they want to pass it by a huge margin with at least 70 votes in order to give momentum to overcome its next obstacle: the House of Representatives.
The GOP-led House is not exactly looking like a bastion of reform this week. A bipartisan group of eight members that's spent the last several months working on a comprehensive bill broke down amid a debate over health care, prompting the departure of Idaho Republican Rep. Raul Labrador, the group's closest ally to the Tea Party. And the longer they go without producing a deal, the more the House's most strident anti-immigrant voices fill the vacuum.
On Thursday, Republicans voted overwhelmingly to pass an amendment by uber-hawk Rep. Steve King, an Iowa Republican, which opposes President Obama's executive order halting deportations of young undocumented immigrants. There is the slightest nuance here: some GOP lawmakers claim they're merely upset with Obama's methods and not his goal. But if fear of Latino voters is supposed to be the driving force that will get reform passed in the House, Republican lawmakers didn't seem too concerned about how the vote looks.
As if that wasn't enough two committee chairs overseeing immigration legislation -- Reps. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., and Bob Goodlatte, R-Va.,-- introduced a bill the same day encouraging anti-immigration state laws like Arizona's SB 1070 that are politically poisonous with Latino voters. The hard right turn was a surprise given that pro-reform voices in the House like Illinois Democrat Luis Gutierrez have been talking up Gowdy and Goodlatte as potential allies for months.
For Simon Rosenberg, executive director of progressive think tank NDN, the combination of events means it may be time to hit the panic button.
"I think this is part of a broader strategy to kill the Senate bill and to prevent it from passing," he said. "They're reasserting 'self deportation' as a way of rallying folks in the Republican party who are uncomfortable with comprehensive immigration reform. And it's intended to put greater pressure on the undecideds to come with them."
He's not alone in voicing concerns about the House's general direction.
"The fact that the amendment passed the House of Representatives demonstrates a lack of control by Republican leadership who is allowing the chamber to be whipped by Tea Party fringe voices," the DREAM Action Coalition, an advocacy group for young immigrants, said in a statement.
"There's no way you can spin this as good," Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster and evangelist for reform, told National Journal after King's amendment passed.
It's not clear what's driving the sudden lurch to the House GOP's old restrictionist ways. Perhaps the most benign explanation, suggested by a Democratic aide in the House, is that Republicans are merely trying to push the Senate bill to the right ahead of its passage to strengthen their hand in negotiations later. Similarly, Sharry told msnbc that he had long predicted Republican senators would try to extract some last minute changes ahead of a final vote regardless of the political environment.
But other observers are worried that Rubio, the Gang of Eight member best-plugged into the talk radio right, is picking up on a deeper change in the climate. In this scenario, conservative anger at President Obama over issues like the IRS targeting scandal might be spooking GOP lawmakers out of any association with his top legislative priority, no matter what concessions they can get along the way. And the more riled up the caucus gets, the harder it will be for Speaker John Boehner to bring an immigration bill to the floor over their objections.
Members of the House bipartisan group, now down to seven, are hoping they can reset the debate by finally releasing a comprehensive agreement sans Labrador. But regardless of the cause of reformers' recent struggles, the path forward in the House for the kind of reform that Senate Democrats and Latino groups could plausibly support is looking much murkier.