WASHINGTON (AP) — Two of the Republican Party's rising young stars — House Speaker Paul Ryan and presidential hopeful Marco Rubio — made similar calculations on the way to political advancement: Both abandoned efforts to pass a comprehensive immigration overhaul.
The about-faces by Ryan and Rubio underscore the GOP's difficulties with the issue of immigration, where policies that appeal to young and minority voters can invite a backlash from the conservative base. And in a campaign season where Donald Trump's incendiary rhetoric has seemed to drive the debate, they renew questions about whether Washington will ever be able to come up with a solution for the nation's dysfunctional immigration system.
In Ryan's case, he emerged as the unity candidate for speaker of the House last week after offering assurances to conservatives that he would not pursue comprehensive immigration legislation with President Barack Obama in the White House. Rubio, in campaigning for president, has repeatedly sworn off the bipartisan Senate immigration bill he co-authored two years ago, and he is now rising in the polls.
Both Ryan, 45, and Rubio, 44, have treaded with care on the issue, never specifically disavowing the goals of comprehensive immigration reform but instead shifting their focus to border security and enforcement, and blaming process or politics.
Ryan says immigration reform cannot happen with Obama in the White House because the president showed he could not be trusted by going around Congress to issue executive actions limiting deportations.
"He has already demonstrated he is not serious about enforcing the law. Passing comprehensive reform during his presidency would merely render it meaningless," the Wisconsin Republican wrote in an opinion piece Wednesday in USA Today, adding that the focus should instead be on bills to secure the border or enforce immigration rules inside the U.S.
Rubio says he's concluded that a comprehensive bill like the one he helped write, which passed the Senate in 2013 but stalled in the House, is not the way to go.
"The only way forward is through a series of steps that begins with border security," the Florida senator said Wednesday on ABC's "Good Morning America." ''This issue cannot be tackled in one massive piece of legislation."
Both tend to downplay their past support for potential eventual citizenship for many of the 11.5 million immigrants living in this country illegally, which was the most contentious element of the Senate's immigration bill and decried as "amnesty" by many conservatives.
Ryan once called potential citizenship "a very important part of immigration reform," but he's avoided discussing it since becoming speaker even when directly asked. For his part, Rubio emphasizes a piecemeal approach. His campaign website includes a section devoted to his opposition to "sanctuary cities" that shield immigrants from prosecution, but does not highlight his broader immigration policies. When asked earlier this week on Fox News Channel, Rubio said he is open to immigrants in the country illegally becoming citizens after 15 years under certain circumstances.
At an event Wednesday in Manchester, N.H., Rubio adopted another conservative stance, pledging that as president he would end an Obama program offering work permits and temporary deportation relief to immigrants brought illegally to this country as kids. Activist groups and Democrats denounced Rubio's remarks, which came after conservative media highlighted past comments where he suggested he would not immediately shut down the program.
The maneuvering comes from lawmakers who were hailed in the past by immigration activists for their leadership roles, Rubio for taking on the Senate bill and trying to sell it to the conservative community, and Ryan for working behind the scenes in the House and trying to find a legislative solution there.
But it's against the backdrop of a presidential campaign that's been dominated by Trump, who's said immigrants who come here illegally are "rapists" bringing drugs and crime. Such pronouncements have pushed the GOP to the right, even as some leading Republicans insist they need a nominee who will embrace immigration legislation and win back some of the Latino and Asian voters who've been abandoning the party.
"It's an issue that as much as we would like, it's not going away," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. "If we don't do something about immigration reform and people are going around saying they're rapists and murderers, then obviously the reaction in the Hispanic community is very negative."
Ryan's efforts to find a House GOP consensus on immigration fizzled after former Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., was upset in his primary race last year by a conservative who accused him of backing amnesty. A crisis of unaccompanied minors arriving from Central America also helped end any faint hopes for action in the House — well before Obama took the executive actions that Ryan and other Republicans now blame for congressional inaction.
Now immigration activists are bemoaning the changed focus from Ryan and Rubio.
"We all know that Ryan supports reform, yet he's letting the Steve King wing of the party call the shots, and same thing with Rubio," said Frank Sharry, executive director of pro-immigrant group America's Voice, naming the leading immigration hardliner in the House. "If they want to expand the Republican Party they have to lead, and neither of them are doing that right now."
Associated Press writer Kathleen Ronayne contributed from Manchester, N.H.
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