By Corrie MacLaggan
AUSTIN, Tex (Reuters) - For a closely-watched group of newly-elected Hispanic Republicans in the Texas House, a debate this week on a measure that would require photo identification from voters is something of a first test.
The proposal, which critics say would disenfranchise Hispanic, African American and low-income voters, has the unanimous support of the Hispanic Republicans. The measure already has passed the Texas Senate and is scheduled to be debated in the House on Wednesday.
"This is not a racial or ethnic issue. It is an issue of voter confidence in the system," said state Rep. Aaron Pena, chairman of the Hispanic Republican Conference. "We who are very proud of our heritage don't see a problem with it."
Two years ago, there were no Hispanic Republicans in the Texas House. This year, there are six, including five freshmen who ousted Democrats as part of the Republican sweep in November elections. Pena, a veteran Democratic lawmaker, switched to the Republican Party after the election.
The Republicans have formed their own caucus, which has 11 voting members, and is open to Hispanic members as well as those whose districts have a high percentage of residents who are Hispanic.
The group will be getting intense pressure from both sides on immigration legislation, and how they navigate the issue will be closely scrutinized. Proposals in Texas include an Arizona-style anti-immigration bill and a proposal that would require local governments that do not enforce immigration laws to forfeit state funding.
"There's where the greatest conflict is going to be between ethnicity and a policy position," said Jerry Polinard, a political science professor at the University of Texas - Pan American, which is in Pena's South Texas district. "A Republican legislator elected from a district with a substantial Mexican American population is going to support these bills at his peril."
In Texas and across the country, Latino voters continue to lean Democratic. In the 2010 Texas gubernatorial race, 61 percent of Latino voters chose Bill White, the Democrat, over Republican Governor Rick Perry, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
Voter ID was the first issue on which the Hispanic Republican Conference took a formal position.
The proposed law would require voters to show photo identification such as a driver's license, passport or concealed handgun license. There are exceptions for voters age 70 or older and those with disabilities.
Under current Texas law, voters have to show a voter registration card, which does not have a photo, or an acceptable alternative, such as a driver's license or a utility bill.
Many Republicans say that the photo ID requirement would deter voter fraud and drive up turnout by increasing voters' confidence in the system. They say that it is not too much to ask voters to show photo identification, which is often required to cash a check or make a credit card purchase.
Many Democrats say that requiring photo identification would suppress voter turnout because it would saddle people without IDs, including a disproportionate number of low-income and minority voters, with the burden of traveling to a state office to obtain one. Democrats also say that voter fraud is not a widespread problem.
Though the Hispanic Republicans fell in line with the broader Republican viewpoint on this issue, Pena said that on other issues, they are working behind the scenes to quash objectionable legislation.
"We don't want to embarrass the members, but if a bill we don't agree with gets past committee, we will speak up," Pena said.
Pena said, for example, that he is opposing legislation championed by some Republicans that would end birthright citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants.
As for voter ID, Perry has declared the proposal a legislative emergency. Last session, the measure passed the Senate and died in the House. Since then, the House has a much larger Republican majority.
Texas is one of about 25 states considering requiring photo IDs for voters, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Eight states already ask voters for photo ID.
When voter ID was before a committee that includes Pena and another member of the Hispanic Republican Conference, the Texas Democratic Party sent a news release entitled "Voter ID: A Moment of Truth for Hispanic Republicans."
"This Hispanic Republican group is first Republican and then, perhaps, Hispanic," said Anthony Gutierrez, deputy executive director of the Texas Democratic Party. "The Hispanic constituents are not the people they're thinking about when they're voting on these bills."
(Editing by Greg McCune)