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Saturday, Feb 02 2013 10:00 PM

ROBERT PRICE: McCarthy needs to lead on immigration reform

By The Bakersfield Californian

Kevin McCarthy is in a position of power right now, even more so than one would normally expect of the third-ranking Republican in the GOP-dominated House.

The nature of McCarthy's congressional district -- conservative but also heavily Hispanic and reliant on undocumented immigrant farm labor -- means his opinion in this debate has added weight. As a red-district voice in a sea of California blue, he ought to hold disproportionate sway in the amnesty-averse House.

But that sway was nowhere to be seen last week. Power is usually accompanied by opportunities to display leadership, but we've seen little of the latter from McCarthy on immigration reform -- and, specifically, his stance on the similar proposals from President Obama and a bipartisan committee of U.S. senators. Except for Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who clearly sees the importance of Latino support in his all-but-assured quest for the 2016 presidential nomination, we've heard almost nothing from House Republicans.

And it's not like we haven't asked. All last week, The Californian tried to get McCarthy to share his thoughts on the push for immigration reform that has overtaken Washington since Obama's re-election -- a victory that was largely a consequence of Republicans' failure to win Latino support.

No response.

Does the congressman support a more direct path to citizenship for illegal immigrants? Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., does, as do the three other Republican senators who served with him on that committee. As does Paul Ryan. But how does McCarthy feel about establishing a probationary legal status that hinges in part on background checks and payment of back taxes? What about enhanced border security as a prerequisite for any changes? We asked McCarthy for his thoughts on reform, in general terms, throughout the week. He finally sent The Californian a brief email Friday afternoon saying he hadn't had an opportunity to scrutinize the Senate proposal but reaffirming his dedication to "the rule of law."

The cynic in me wonders if McCarthy and the House leadership are still simply trying to gauge which way the wind is blowing. Here in the real world (Kern County excepted), it's blowing unambiguously for reform, but the House is anything but the real world.

Well, you might ask, what's the hurry? Just this: Immigration reform must be passed by Congress' summer recess or it might not be passed at all. As the 2014 primary season edges nearer, House Republicans -- especially those who fear challenges from the right -- will start feeling skittish about a vote for reform. Their conservative base will not be thrilled with the idea, and the Rush Limbaughs of the world will stoke that fire. And, as April gives way to July, it'll be over.

Who loses? Undocumented immigrants who would have qualified for some sort of acceptable legal status, of course. And, Mr. House Republican, your party. Having already failed to appreciate the epic changes in U.S. demographics, Republicans will have missed an opportunity to steer their ship away from the precipice. And that failure will fall on none other than McCarthy, who, as House majority whip, is charged with helping Republicans get elected and stay elected. So the brain trust's waffling on this issue only makes his task tougher.

That's where true leadership could make such a difference. Assuming McCarthy recognizes the inevitably of immigration reform -- and I believe he does -- his voice can make a huge impact. He'll want to make sure Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor are speaking with the same voice, naturally, but that's what a whip does -- he convinces.

Email Editorial Page Editor Robert Price at rprice@bakersfield.com.

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