Has the Republican Party reached a tipping point on immigration?
Reeling from a stinging defeat in the 2012 presidential election spurred by a historically poor performance among Latino voters, leading Republicans have rushed to declare their willingness to move forward on a comprehensive immigration reform bill, a top priority for Latino voters.
It's a marked shift for Republican leaders, who have largely opposed a comprehensive reform bill for the past half decade. The new tone has given long-frustrated reform advocates a glimmer of optimism. But despite the happy talk, a comprehensive bill still would face a tough road ahead in the next Congress.
The most consequential Republican statement came Thursday from House Speaker John Boehner (Ohio), whose conference has long been viewed by Democrats and pro-reform groups as the chief roadblock to passing a bill. The Speaker said he is confident that he can find "common ground" with President Obama to pass legislation.
"It's an important issue that I think ought to be dealt with. This issue has been around far too long," Boehner said in an interview with ABC News' Diane Sawyer. "And while I believe it's important for us to secure our borders and to enforce our laws, I think a comprehensive approach is long overdue."
Asked whether he would endorse a pathway to citizenship at a press conference today in the Capitol, Boehner said "I'm not endorsing any of the details…On an issue this big, the president has to lead."
Boehner was joined days earlier by South Carolina Sen. Lindsay Graham (R), who helped craft a failed comprehensive reform bill in 2007 that included a pathway to citizenship.
"It's important for our country to solve illegal immigration once and for all. We must deal with the issue firmly and fairly," tweeted Graham.
Republican and conservative media figures have also joined the call, some in remarkable fashion. News Corporation CEO Rupert Murdoch, long a supporter of immigration reform, renewed that message after Republican Mitt Romney's defeat Tuesday. CNBC's Larry Kudlow tweeted Wednesday that the GOP must "restore its soul on immigration."
Sean Hannity of the Murdoch-owned Fox News network went the furthest, saying Thursday on his radio program that he has "evolved" on the issue of immigration and supports a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants in the United States.
"You don't say you've got to go home. And that is a position that I've evolved on. Because, you know what, it's got to be resolved," he said.
The rhetoric from Republicans appears to acknowledge the result of the presidential election, which revealed a new demographic reality in American politics and a growing consensus around immigration reform.
According to exit polls, Obama won 71 percent of Latino voters compared to Romney's 27 percent, the largest margin since 1996. Latinos made up their largest share of the electorate ever (10 percent) and 74 percent of Latino voters said that employed undocumented immigrants should be given the chance to apply for legal status. A substantial majority of all voters (64 percent) also approved
The new GOP tone is far different from Romney's rallying cry of "self-deportation" during the primaries. It's also a big shift for Boehner, who in April said that passing Sen. Marco Rubio's (R-Fla.) DREAM Act-light proposal would be "difficult at best." In June, Boehner said that Obama's deferred action program would make it "much more difficult" to craft a bipartisan immigration bill.
Senate Democrats, who have said they are prepared to move on an immigration bill soon after the next Congress begins in January, expressed a sense of optimism.
"This is a breakthrough to have the Speaker endorse the urgency of comprehensive immigration reform. Democrats in the Senate look forward to working with him to come up with a bipartisan solution," said Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), the chairman of a key immigration subcommittee.
National Immigration Forum Executive Director Ali Noorani was also pleased with Boehner's comments.
"It means that the GOP takes the Latino vote seriously now," he told ABC/Univision. "The dynamics are changing. There is a storm brewing."
It's remarkable that leaders in the Republican House, the Democratic Senate, and President Obama have all voiced support for immigration reform. But it's still far from a given that a comprehensive bill becomes reality.
Congressional leaders have not spoken about an exact time frame or the policy details of an immigration bill. Past attempt have been held up by controversy and a lack of consensus about what to do with the 12 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S.
Democrats in Congress almost uniformly support immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship, but the Republicans still have many members who are opposed to it. Sens. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and David Vitter (R-La.), who helped derail the 2007 bill, remain in office. And Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), the House's foremost immigration hardliner, won reelection on Tuesday. That's not to mention the resistance Republicans could feel from their conservative base.
Noorani, whose group has worked with conservatives such as anti-tax activist Grover Norquist to prod the GOP on immigration reform, said that it will be incumbent upon party leaders to make the skeptics fall in line.
"The only way Steve King is going to be a problem is if the GOP doesn't fix the immigration problem," Noorani said.
"Obama voters chose dependency over Liberty. Now establishment R's want citizenship for illegals. You can't beat Santa Claus with amnesty," tweeted King on Thursday night.