Donald Lambro

What came next opened those cracks even wider. A few days after the election, in which Barack Obama won more than 70 percent of the Hispanic vote, other conservatives broke ranks on the issue.

Tough-talking, conservative TV talk show king Sean Hannity was the first to tackle the issue head on, saying, "We gotta get rid of the immigration issue altogether."

Hannity's fix was "simple," he said. "You control the border first, you create a pathway for those people that are here, you don't say you gotta go home. And that is a position that I've evolved on."

"If some people have criminal records, you can send 'em home," he added, "but if people are here, law-abiding, for years, their kids are born here," they should be given a "pathway to citizenship," he said.

Still, the idea of making any legislative movement on such a thorny, politically charged issue seemed unlikely as we headed into the new year.

Then, two newly-elected, bedrock conservative leaders dramatically shifted the political dynamics of the debate.

Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and libertarian Rand Paul of Kentucky -- elected with strong support from the GOP's tea party ranks -- have joined with other senators seeking to put together a package of reforms to break the Senate's stalemate.

Whether they can or not remains to be seen. But Rubio and Paul, among others, have clearly broken through the once impregnable obstacles to reform -- while holding on to their base of support.

Last month, Paul, who picked up the libertarian banner his father championed throughout his career, endorsed a path to legalization for an estimated 11 million immigrants now living illegally in the U.S.

While he avoids the term "citizenship" which he thinks is a turn off for conservative voters, it's not something he rules out -- though he told the Washington Post that at the outset, "there has to be some difference between people who come here legally and illegally.

"Everybody's going crazy -- is it a pathway or isn't it a pathway?" he said. "If everything is dumbed down to 'pathway to citizenship' or 'amnesty,' we're not going to be able to move forward, because we've polarized the country."

But Paul is not against illegal immigrants eventually becoming citizens and he doesn't believe they must first return to their native country before seeking legalization.

Rubio, who has joined a bipartisan group of senators attempting to craft a plan they hope to unveil this month, also supports a pathway to legalization and, ultimately to citizenship. But he has been cautious not to move too fast, fearing it could be politically fatal to reform efforts to get too far ahead of its emerging base of support. It is better, he thinks, to gradually bring them along as the reform plan slowly evolves through the legislative process.

Last week, Rubio wrote to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy of Vermont, warning that he was moving too quickly, that hearings must be held first, and that there should be no "rush to legislate." Better, he says, to first build our base of support before bringing a bill to the Senate floor.

That support is growing among the GOP's large base of social conservatives and religious groups who see reform as a cultural and moral issue. The Evangelical Immigration Table, a coalition of groups in over 100,000 churches, has launched a nationwide phone campaign to reach out to congressional lawmakers.

No one's taking bets on whether immigration legislation will be enacted anytime soon, if at all, considering strong House opposition. But the grassroots climate has clearly changed and the political needle in the Senate is inching toward passage.

Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.