NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Spanish-speaking wait staff hustled around the Conservative Political Action Conference ballroom Thursday evening, laying out cups and silverware with such precision and speed the room echoed with the sound of clinking wine glasses, rolling food carts and pounding plates.
It's a scene that's very personal to GOP leaders like Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., whose own father was a bartender who served drinks at parties like the ones his son headlines now. But at CPAC, many Republicans still seemed resistant to Rubio's immigration reform framework he unveiled with a bipartisan group of senators this year.
While Rubio called for a path to citizenship for immigrants, Republicans like Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, a former immigration lawyer, said that is a point not worth pursuing if legislators want to get a bill that has the power to pass the Republican-controlled House.
"It would be a travesty in my opinion to treat those who violated our laws to get here much better than those who have patiently waited their turn," Labrador said during an immigration panel here Thursday.
Rep. Louis Gohmert, R- Texas, former chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, says legislators should be focusing on border security before they proceed with anything else.
"We do need a complete revitalization of the immigration services. It is a disaster. It is not performing like it should," says Gohmert. "I hope we can get an agreement, but we have to secure the border … otherwise you create another magnet to suck more people in illegally and then you have to do this issue again."
Even as groups of bipartisan legislators inch closer and closer to completing a comprehensive immigration bill, CPAC revealed how many pitfalls remain. Building consensus between Republicans and Democrats is a task in itself, but even Republicans seem divided on how to proceed.
Some are calling for the party to soften its rhetoric and be more welcoming of Latinos into the GOP's growing tent.
"People understand the need for more allies and the need for a different tone," says White Ayres, a GOP strategist. "You cannot run against a group of people and then expect those people to turn around and vote for you."
But Labrador lit into his party for wasting time on apologies and not action.
"You have five Republicans who have bad rhetoric. The rest of them are actually pretty good," Labrador said during a panel here. "So let's stop talking about this and get it done."
Experts and interest groups agree there is a reason why immigration reform has failed many times before. Laying out the details on what to do about a guest worker program, border security and 12 million undocumented immigrants would be emotionally-charged enough without the added pressure of considering the political ramifications.
Some in the Republican party urge leaders to get behind a path to citizenship to attract Latino voters, who tend to have more conservative social leanings than Americans at large already, experts say. But there is some concern that giving 12 million immigrants the right to vote could lead to growing voting bloc for the Democratic party.
"That is a self fulfilling prophecy," says Brent Wilkes, the national executive director for the centrist League of United Latin American Citizens. "If you try every step along the way to stop citizenship, then yes they will vote against you. But if you say 'there should be a path to citizenship, it may be long, but my party is not going to stand in your way' you may have a good chance of doing well."
But while it's an uphill climb to convince everyone to stand united, one lawmaker who has been working behind the scenes to hammer out a bipartisan deal says it's not as impossible as it once looked.
"If I were a betting man, I would not vote against getting a bipartisan immigration deal," says Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla.
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