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GOP fears Obama will jilt them on immigration

A recurring fear has colored Republicans’ attitude toward the current immigration reform debate in Congress: President Barack Obama has no actual interest in reaching a deal, and is instead pursuing the issue to exacerbate the GOP’s problems with Hispanic voters.

Yet all of the evidence so far – whether in his speeches and or his relations with Congress – suggests he and his administration clearly want a deal that he could sign into law.

Politics, of course, play an undeniable role in the renewed effort to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws, especially given that Obama won more than 70 percent of the Latino vote in the 2012 election. Consequently, Republicans who had previously resisted any legislation that offered a pathway to citizenship for the nation’s some 11 million undocumented immigrants have now reversed course.

In this Jan. 29, 2013, file photo, President Barack Obama speaks about immigration reform Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013, at Del Sol High School in Las Vegas.Isaac Brekken / AP

“The Republican Party is losing the support of our Hispanic citizens and we realize that there are many issues on which we think we are in agreement with our Hispanic citizens but this is a preeminent issue with those citizens,” Arizona Sen. John McCain, a Republican member of the bipartisan Senate group working toward an immigration accord, said bluntly upon the introduction of that proposal’s framework.

But Republicans have warily engaged the new debate over immigration with active fears that the president’s true intentions on immigration are half-hearted, at best.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who’s established himself as an outspoken conservative after just a couple of months on the job, was only the latest Republican to give voice to that fear.

“I don’t believe President Obama wants an immigration bill to pass, instead I think he wants a political issue,” he said in a speech on Wednesday, according to a report by the Houston Chronicle. ”His objective is to push so much on the table that he forces Republicans walk away from the table because then he wants to use that issue in 2014 and 2016 as a divisive wedge issue.”

It’s a fear that many of Cruz’s fellow elected Republicans appear to share.

“The question that many of us are asking, Republicans and Democrats, is he looking to play politics or does he want to solve the problem?” Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, the former GOP vice presidential nominee, asked during his Jan. 27 appearance on NBC's “Meet the Press” preceding Obama’s major policy speech on immigration.

Republicans carefully watched that speech with concerns that Obama would eventually demagogue immigration. The president generally did the opposite; he used the speech to carefully embrace the bipartisan Senate talks, while warning that the administration would have its own backup plan at the ready for congressional consideration should the Senate talks fail. He further embraced a bipartisan speech in prime time, during his State of the Union address.

“As we speak, bipartisan groups in both chambers are working diligently to draft a bill, and I applaud their efforts,” Obama said. “So let’s get this done. Send me a comprehensive immigration reform bill in the next few months, and I will sign it right away.”

But Republicans’ concerns that Obama will jilt the GOP on immigration very much inform the work toward a comprehensive reform law, and help explain part of the reason why the politics of the issue are so fraught.

When a draft of the White House’s immigration reform proposal leaked over the weekend, Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican who is helping negotiate the Senate plan, pronounced it dead on arrival in Congress.

“It’s a mistake for the White House to draft immigration legislation without seeking input from Republican members of Congress,” Rubio said in a statement.

Rubio’s scorching statement was also intended to maintain credibility with conservatives, whose support – or, at least, tolerance – of an immigration overhaul the Cuban-American senator’s worked to win.

(And, for his part, Obama said that the leak was but a hiccup. “It certainly did not jeopardize the entire process,” he told an Univision affiliate in Texas. “The negotiations are still moving forward.”)

But as Republicans tread carefully toward an immigration agreement, they might also keep in mind the political skin Obama has put at stake with this issue.

For as ballyhooed as Obama’s 44-point advantage over Republican nominee Mitt Romney among Hispanic or Latino voters has been, the president had to quell frustration among Latino voters about his failure to pursue immigration in his first term. He faced some of his toughest questioning of the campaign on that very issue during a town hall last September with Univision’s Jorge Ramos, who pointedly accused Obama of breaking his promise to bring up an immigration reform bill during his first year in office. Latino activists have repeatedly criticized Obama for overseeing a record pace of deportations during his first term.

What’s more, Obama basically premised his plea for Latinos’ votes on the premise that, if they helped re-elect him, immigration reform would finally be achievable.

“What I’m absolutely certain of is if the Latino community and the American community that cares about this issue turns out to vote, they can send a message that this is not something to use as a political football, that people’s lives are at stake, that this is a problem that we can solve and historically has had bipartisan support,” Obama said in the same Univision forum.

That’s to say: if immigration reform fails during Obama’s second term, there will be more than enough political fallout to spread around.