Donald Lambro
WASHINGTON - The immigration reform battle in the Senate will be won or lost on the Republican side of the aisle where the GOP is increasingly divided on the issue.

Little more than a year ago, with few exceptions, that wasn't the case. Immigration reform was going nowhere and conservatives were pretty much in lock-step against any changes beyond strengthening border security.

Then came the crowded field candidates in the 2012 Republican presidential primary debates, and wide cracks began appearing in the GOP's position, especially among major conservative leaders.

Mitt Romney, for all the good it did him, took the hard-core, anti-reform position, calling for self-deportation of all illegal immigrants and not giving an inch on related issues. But some of his rivals for the presidential nomination had other ideas, and that's when the political fractures began to appear.

It's worth remembering what they said because that's when the GOP's political positions on immigration reform began to slowly change.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, one of the GOP's most popular conservative leaders, broke the ice in one of the earliest primary debates. That's when he suggested that illegal immigrants who have lived here for many years, had raised their family here, paid their taxes, and had never gotten into trouble with the law, should be given some sort of legal status, maybe an eventual path to citizenship by going to the back of the line and applying for it.

Despite Gingrich's surprising proposal, polls showed him moving to the front of the pack until his campaign ran out of steam he eventually ended his bid for the nomination.

Then came conservative Gov. Rick Perry who went toe-to-toe with Romney on immigration by pointing out that his state of Texas had approved in-state college tuition for the children of illegals. And anyone who disapproved of letting kids who had exemplary grades go on to higher education "doesn't have a heart," he lectured the former governor.

It is worth noting, as Perry did, that Texas has one of the most hardcore, conservative Republican legislatures in the country.

Congressman Ron Paul, a leader of the libertarian wing of American politics, also supported reform efforts, though he sometimes played down his position in the debates.

Nevertheless, cracks had appeared among the GOP's rock-ribbed, conservative stalwarts on immigration issues. And their differences sowed the reform seeds for further debate after the election.

Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.