Some GOP Donors Step Up Immigration Push


By Laura Meckler

Supporters of an Overhaul Think It Could Help Party Rebound From Shutdown Battle

 Some big-money Republican donors, frustrated by their party’s handling of the standoff over the debt ceiling and government shutdown, are stepping up their warnings to GOP leaders that they risk long-term damage to the party if they fail to pass immigration legislation.

Some donors say they are withholding political contributions from members of Congress who don’t support action on immigration, and many are calling top House leaders. Their hope is that the party can gain ground with Hispanic voters, make needed changes in immigration policy and offset some of the damage that polls show it is taking for the shutdown.

“I’m concerned as an American, first of all. I’m certainly concerned as a Republican,” said Fred Zeidman, a Texas oil executive and fundraiser. “For my party to fight the inevitable, I think, is so incredibly shortsighted.”

Many donors said they have taken their concerns directly to House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor. That includes Mr. Zeidman and Carlos Gutierrez, who served in George W. Bush‘s cabinet and is now heading the group Republicans for Immigration Reform, as well as lobbyist Charlie Black and GOP fundraiser Fred Malek.

House Republicans say they are working on several immigration bills, but leaders have been noncommittal about their next step. Asked about donors’ concerns, Michael Steel, a spokesman for Mr. Boehner, of Ohio, said, “The speaker remains committed to a step-by-step process to fix our broken immigration system.” He declined to comment on the pace of legislative progress.

The shutdown and debt-ceiling crisis exposed a GOP split between tea-party-backed lawmakers unwilling to fund the government without concessions from Democrats and Republicans who thought those tactics ill-advised. On immigration, establishment donors fear House leaders will take their cues from conservatives who oppose any aid for those in the U.S. illegally.

On Thursday, President Barack Obama will renew his call for the House to take up the issue, part of a stepped up White House effort to pressure the House to reach an agreement with the Senate, which passed a sweeping immigration bill in June.

Mr. Gutierrez said he has turned down two Republicans who sought contributions—one a senator and one a member of theHouse—because they oppose immigration legislation. “In my lonely crusade, that’s what I can do,” he said. Norman Braman, a Miami businessman and donor, said he is asking candidates for their stance on immigration when they seek campaign contributions, and that he is likely to turn down those who don’t back the legislation. He thinks now is a time for donors to flex their muscles.

“People are now looking to the elections in 2014, and that’s when they begin coming around to people like me,” he said.

John Rowe of Chicago, the former CEO of Exelon Corp., has held fundraisers for Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, one of the architects of the Senate immigration bill. He also has donated to GOP Reps. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Aaron Shock of Illinois, who support a path to citizenship for those here illegally.

“It’s absolutely frustrating. It’s terribly concerning,” Mr. Rowe said, referring to the lack of progress of an immigration overhaul in the House. “I am very frustrated as a Republican.”

The Partnership for a New Economy, a group backed by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg that supports a broad overhaul of immigration law, had been emphasizing economic arguments when it lobbied Congress. Now, the group plans to argue that Republicans will lose elections if they don’t embrace an immigration overhaul. It says it will make that argument when it flies several hundred conservatives to Washington for lobbying late this month, among them people from businesses and law enforcement.

The economic argument doesn’t seem to be sufficient to get Republicans to act, said Jeremy Robbins, director of the partnership. “They all get that there is political urgency, but it doesn’t seem to have been conveyed strongly enough.”

The GOP’s electoral concerns about immigration legislation stem most immediately from presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s poor showing with Hispanics in 2012. After the election, a string of prominent Republicans called for the party to get behind immigration legislation, much as Mr. Bush did in his second term.

Some Republicans say the political risk to the GOP is overblown, noting few House Republicans face credible challenges from Democrats next year.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.), a leading opponent of the Senate bill, called the political argument “nonsense” in a summer memo to House Republicans. The party lost in 2012 “because they hemorrhaged support from middle- and low-income Americans,” he wrote. Similar points are made by some influential conservative groups, such as Heritage Action, which also says the Senate bill amounts to amnesty for lawbreakers.

Most Democratic lawmakers back an immigration overhaul, but the coalition behind it includes some Republicans, who cite economic and humanitarian reasons. Support from business leaders, evangelicals, law enforcement and Republican donors led many to believe Congress would act this year. Now, some of them fear the sense of urgency is fading.

“The day after the election, all I’m hearing everywhere is, ‘We’ve got to open the tent.’ We’re one year later. Do you see the tent opening?” said Mr. Zeidman, the Texas oil executive. “They forgot where the door to the tent is.”

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