WASHINGTON — Former Govs. Haley Barbour and Jeb Bush, the folksy pol from Mississippi and the policy wonk from Florida, sat next to each other Thursday pitching immigration reform as vital for the economic future of an aging country.
"We have to change our policies. They are broken," Bush said. "That is a winning message in conservative America."
Across town, another conservative message is confronting the establishment voices epitomized by Barbour and Bush.
A small but undaunted group of conservative newcomers in the U.S. Senate — namely Mike Lee of Utah and Ted Cruz of Texas — is shaping opposition to the immigration reform bill, casting it as amnesty wrapped in ineffective border security.
"There is no one amendment that can fix this bill," Lee said as debate began last Friday. "Indeed, there is no series of tinkering changes to turn this mess of a bill into the reform this country needs."
The old guard versus new is just one layer in a complex debate but an important one — not just to the outcome of immigration reform but to the direction of the Republican Party.
The former governors' appearance at the Bipartisan Policy Center marked a more visible effort by the GOP establishment to influence the debate, one reform advocates say has been too slow in the making. Bush led the argument on economic grounds, saying more people are needed as the American population ages and families have fewer children.
"You change the conversation from the question of illegal immigration ... to how do you create an economic strategy of sustained economic growth, and the whole dynamic of the conversation changes," Bush said, endorsing the Senate bill, which moves from a family-based immigration system to one based on work skills.
Bush made the appeal earlier Thursday in a private meeting with Republican House members. And there are signs of reinforcements. Crossroads GPS, the powerful third-party GOP organization, launched an ad campaign backing reform. It was signed by top business leaders and Republicans, including Bush and Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford.
But prospects remain unclear on Capitol Hill. Even if the Senate passes its bill, the House remains challenging.
Cruz and Lee are heroes to grassroots conservatives who have proudly agitated old bull Republicans such as Sen. John McCain on budget and fiscal matters, espousing a no-compromising style of politics. When McCain labeled them "wacko birds," the insurgents embraced it as a badge of honor.
Now they add heft to old-school immigration critics such as Charles Grassley of Iowa and Jeff Sessions of Alabama and push other Republicans to the right. While the Republican Party frets about the waves of new Hispanic voters, which have been overwhelmingly Democratic, Cruz and Lee talk of fidelity to law and order.
"They represent boldness, the willingness to lose the next election, to put it quite frankly," said Lynn Proudfoot, 61, of Des Moines, Iowa, who attended a Faith & Freedom Coalition conference in Washington on Thursday.
"Most of the historic political movements that strengthened America started out as a minority viewpoint," Proudfoot said. "Had they been concerned with establishing a majority any way they could, building a coalition, things probably wouldn't have happened."
Lee spoke at the event but did not mention immigration reform. Nor did Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, another newcomer who has shown little concern with the traditional ways of Washington. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, one of four Republicans who helped write the Senate immigration bill, said in his address, "the essence of our immigration policy is compassion." The line drew applause, but Rubio quickly moved on.
Elected in 2010, Rubio best reflects the tension between an establishment GOP ready to get past the immigration debate and the newer crop of conservatives who say the party loses by compromising too much. On a host of other issues, from concern over federal spending to the health care law, Rubio aligns with Cruz and Lee. But he has cautiously emerged as a leader on immigration, drawing intense criticism from some conservatives. Politics, though, are on Rubio's side. Polling released Thursday in key states showed widespread public support, including 7 in 10 Florida voters for the bipartisan plans before Congress.
Bush, who like Rubio is a possible 2016 presidential candidate, praised his protege Thursday and said the Senate bill, which would require illegal immigrants to pay fines while putting them on a 13-year path to citizenship contingent on border security, is a balanced approach.
He suggested that the House would come to the table eventually. "There's an emerging consensus that this is a great opportunity to fix a big problem," Bush said.
Asked about Cruz and Lee, Bush chose his words carefully: "They have a right and they have participated in trying to shape the bills. That's the way the process works. I have total respect for them. But I think there's a broader number of people who do think we need to move forward."
Alex Leary can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @learyreports.