TALLAHASSEE — Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford stood before the conservative James Madison Institute last week and offered up their views of the world.
Gaetz, 66, seeded his talk with quips about the "communists" in the Democratic Party and the untrustworthy ways of the "liberal media." Weatherford, 34, was a 10-year-old when the Berlin Wall fell and grew up long after the communist threat. He spoke of his hope for the Republican Party, and urged the crowd to be bolder and more compassionate.
"The state of Florida is changing, the demographics of this state and, as conservatives and people who believe in free enterprise, our message has to be a little bit stronger and maybe a little bit more inviting,'' Weatherford said. His greatest regret, he added: "We don't do a good job of fighting for people who are stuck in generational poverty.''
Florida's two Republican presiding officers not only represent the Legislature's two chambers, they are a reflection of the generational and ideological differences that make up today's Republican Party. As legislators enter the final week of the session, those differences will be manifest in the debate over the most divisive issue this year — whether to extend in-state tuition to the children of undocumented immigrants.
Weatherford, the second oldest of nine children who once credited society's "safety net" for helping his struggling family, has spearheaded the bill as a "fundamental element of our American character that we don't punish children for mistakes made by their parents."
But for him, it is more than an issue of fairness, it is also practical politics.
"As a policymaker, it's my job to help foster upward mobility through higher education by making a university degree more accessible for all of Florida's children,'' he wrote in an op-ed in the Tampa Bay Times before session began.
For Gaetz, a self-made millionaire who founded the nation's first for-profit hospice chain, the proposal, SB 1400, is too broad, and too dangerous.
"It casts a blanket of approval over noncitizens who are in this country without proper legal status from anywhere in the world, including countries which are caldrons of terrorism and anti-American violence," Gaetz wrote in an email this month to constituents.
Gaetz also sees a fairness issue asking if parents struggling to pay tuition for their own children "should be mandated to pay for substantially increased tuition subsidies for noncitizens," he wrote.
The issue was not on Weatherford's agenda last year, but it has become so important this year that he has used it as a bargaining chip in late-session horse trading with the Senate.
When Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Joe Negron refused a hearing on the bill last week, the House slowed progress on a handful of bills that are Gaetz's priorities. A bill sought by the Senate president that would authorize three trauma centers in Central Florida, for example, has been to be linked to a bill Gaetz opposes — allowing nurse practitioners to practice without requiring a doctor's supervision.
Gaetz, by contrast, allowed Negron to use a procedural maneuver to keep the immigration bill from coming up for a vote last week but, after the James Madison event, he agreed it is likely to come to a floor vote early this week.
"He hasn't failed yet,'' Gaetz said of Weatherford's efforts.
The political backdrop to all of this is that Republican strategists believe they must improve Gov. Rick Scott's support among Hispanic voters. President Barack Obama easily carried Hispanic voters in Florida in the last two presidential cycles and a February poll showed Scott trailed Democrat Charlie Crist among Hispanic voters by a 2-to-1 margin.
To that end, Scott has named former Miami state Rep. Carlos Lopez-Cantera as his running mate and launched an aggressive Hispanic outreach campaign. In the last week, Scott has weighed into the immigration debate, urging the Senate to accept the House proposal. His late entry, supporters of the bill say, is a reflection of his desire to improve his poll numbers among Hispanics more than a reflection of his commitment to the issue.
How Gaetz and Weatherford resolve the issue in the final week of the 60-day session will not only shed light on their leadership, it will mirror the challenges that face the party as it tries to find a unified message to bridge deep divisions.
"The Senate president and the speaker are a proxy for the conversation that is being had in the Republican Party right now,'' said Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, a former Senate president who opposes the in-state tuition bill.
Gaetz represents "the very large contingent within the party that believes that the path to success is to stand on its core principles and the rule of law and the traditions of our nation,'' he explained.
Weatherford, by contrast, is part of a "younger group of people who want to react more to the changes that have taken place in society — recognizing the world is moving."
Rep. Jose Oliva, R-Miami, is part of that younger group. Designated to be House speaker in four years, Oliva acknowledges the divisions in the party but believes "there are more things that we have in common than separate us."
He frames the issue of in-state tuition for immigrants as a classic example of the Republican adherence to removing government obstacles to individual success.
"It's easy to make the argument that someone who is doing the very things that we need them to do to excel in our society —getting an education, doing what they need to do to improve themselves — those people ought not have barriers,'' he said. "So in that regard, they are almost telling you by their actions that they are going to be productive in society and productive members of society is what makes society strong."
Lee said the very public feud among Republicans is paramount in the Senate because, unlike the House, its larger districts make it more difficult for incumbents to overcome a primary challenge if legislators are challenged from the right because of a vote on immigration.
Recent polls have shown that a majority of voters, even in GOP-held state Senate districts, support in-state tuition for children of noncitizens.
When Lee was Senate president and Jeb Bush was governor in 2006, the Senate voted down a similar immigrant tuition bill, sponsored by then-Rep. Juan Zapata, R-Miami.
"The governor was for it, but wouldn't burn a calorie for it,'' Lee recalled. "It wasn't a big deal for him at the time but now the issue has come back and it's a high-profile issue — to the point where if it doesn't get a vote on the Senate floor, this place will melt down.''
The immigration debate was previewed last week in the Senate, when the chamber voted 25-12 for an amendment to allow the Florida Supreme Court to grant a license to practice law to Jose Godinez-Samperio, 27, of Largo, an undocumented Mexican immigrant who has completed law school and passed the bar.
"Are we going to be a nation of laws or are we not?,'' asked Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla. "This is going to exacerbate the immigration problem because the message we're sending to parents all across the globe is if you want your child to be given an opportunity all you have to do is go to Florida and make sure they're there 10 years or more.''
Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, asked senators to remember that the children of undocumented immigrants can serve in the military.
"I ask you, look in your hearts and do what's right and just remember if it's okay for them to die for this great country, then it's okay for them to have a professional license,'' he said.
Lee predicts "there will be a vote" on the immigration tuition bill, it "will pass the Florida Senate'' and, if Republicans reflect their districts, Florida will look like a pretty divided state.
"There will be those who think a certain number of Republicans joined with Democrats to compromise the core principles of our party, our nation's laws and that nothing reigns more supreme than that,'' he said.
"But there will be a whole other group that are proud that our party is mature enough and has evolved enough and that we respect democracy enough to give people a vote. ... It's a tough needle to thread."
Contact Mary Ellen Klas at meklas@MiamiHerald.com and @MaryEllenKlas.