Tom Cotton a Key House Voice on Immigration Reform

Tom Cotton a Key House Voice on Immigration Reform

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - July 16, 2013

Arkansas Rep. Tom Cotton says he has written to his congressional representatives only once in his lifetime: In May 2007, the Iraq War vet contacted Sens. Mark Pryor and Blanche Lincoln, both Democrats, and asked them to "oppose the amnesty bill" that was before lawmakers.

That comprehensive immigration reform measure didn't survive a cloture vote a month later; Pryor voted against proceeding with the legislation, though Lincoln supported doing so. The Senate did pass a similar bill last month, with Pryor signing on, and now that the ball is in the House’s court, the 36-year-old Cotton is emerging as a key voice of the opposition.

The Republican freshman from his state’s 4th Congressional District challenged conference leaders at a closed-door strategy meeting last week, then penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal articulating the House GOP’s opposition to the Senate’s “enforcement later” approach, and has appeared on several television and radio shows to make the conservative case on immigration. And lately, that case comes down to this: When it comes to immigration reform, it’s House legislation or nothing at all.

The issue “is not new for me,” the lawmaker said in an interview with RealClearPolitics, recalling that letter to his representatives six years ago.

His opposition to the Senate bill shouldn’t be a surprise. In Cotton’s seven months on Capitol Hill, he has proven to be something of a reliable “no” vote on all kinds of legislation that has come to the House floor -- even bills backed by Speaker John Boehner and the party leadership. For example, Cotton -- who grew up on his family’s Dardanelle, Ark., cattle farm -- voted against the Boehner-backed Farm Bill last month because it included what he saw as waste and fraud in the food stamp program. (He then voted for a bill that had stripped out food-stamp funding.)

Cotton’s involvement in the immigration issue is especially noteworthy because he is considered -- and is considering -- a potential challenge to Pryor in 2014, a race upon which control of the Senate might hinge.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said Obamacare figures to be the “premier issue” in the 2014 midterms. Cotton agrees, and is apparently undeterred by Republican strategists who believe that statewide GOP candidates would be wise to take immigration off the table by passing something – anything, in fact.

So far, 15 Senate Republicans -- three of whom are up for re-election next year -- voted for the upper chamber’s version of the immigration bill. But Cotton doesn’t sound concerned that immigration reform politics might trickle into Arkansas. He and other Republicans simply plan to equate the Senate’s Democrat-backed immigration bill to the Affordable Care Act in size and scope, and to question the administration’s reliability in enforcing border laws, given its delay of the ACA’s insurance mandate for businesses.

“In so many ways, this bill is just like Obamacare -- not just the slap-dash manner it ran through the Senate but also in the big, cumbersome, unwieldy, very complicated undertaking that will begin to collapse under its own weight, and [it is] nothing more than amnesty without any enforcement,” Cotton told RCP, echoing what many House Republicans said after their immigration strategy meeting last week.

Since Pryor voted for the bill, the immigration issue could be “clearly an opportunity to show contrast” if Cotton does run for Senate, says Alice Stewart, an Arkansas-based Republican strategist and radio host. Stewart said she expects him to run, and that he has been laying the groundwork in Washington and in Arkansas by meeting with people who can help him financially.

Cotton raised over $600,000 last quarter, bringing his cash on hand to a little over $1 million. This is more than he would likely need for his House re-election campaign, but is not yet enough to compete with Pryor. The incumbent is a strong fundraiser, bringing in $1.2 million last quarter and has $3.9 million in cash. Pryor was first elected to the Senate in 2002, taking his father’s seat, and is well known in the state. Bill Clinton, who was born in Cotton’s district, is campaigning for Pryor.

Although Pryor backed immigration reform, he opposes gay marriage, and was one of only four Democrats to vote against a bipartisan background-check measure for gun buyers earlier this year. In his first campaign ad this election cycle, he hit Michael Bloomberg for attacking him on the gun measure.

Republicans hope to make the Arkansas race a referendum on Barack Obama’s policies as much as Mark Pryor’s, however, and they have a blueprint for how to do it. Blanche Lincoln lost her Senate seat in 2010 partly over her affirmative vote on the health care law, which Pryor also supported.

Democrats have learned their lessons, too, however. The Arkansas Democratic establishment coalesced around Pryor early in hopes of avoiding the kind of bruising primary fight that hurt Lincoln. And Democrats aiming to keep control of the Senate have already been hammering Cotton on the air and through press releases, even though he is not yet a candidate. After the first Farm Bill vote, a Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman said, “There’s no doubt Cotton is only looking out for special interests and his friends at the Club for Growth and not for Arkansas’ farmers and ranchers,” referring to the conservative group that helped finance Cotton’s first congressional bid last year. And the Senate Majority PAC launched a statewide ad in June accusing Cotton of using his House seat as a springboard for higher offices.

Republicans, meanwhile, have virtually cleared the path for him, hoping he decides to run. Cotton told RCP he would wait to make a decision about a Senate bid, though he in no way discouraged such speculation. “This immigration debate has taken up a lot of my time,” he explained, noting that he has been studying immigration statutes while balancing his Foreign Affairs Committee work on the conflicts in Egypt and Syria. “I will evaluate political races later … but right now I’ve just got my hands full on legislative matters.”

Unlike other leading anti-amnesty lawmakers, such as Iowa’s Steve King, Cotton is considered a rising star in his party and a possible national candidate down the road. He’s certainly got the résumé for it. A veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, he is a graduate of Harvard Law School, where Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren was his professor. He already commands attention from GOP leaders within and outside of Congress.

Cotton is not portraying himself as any kind of maverick. His constituents, he says, fuel part of his charge. Heading into the conference meeting last week, Cotton said he received 1,800 letters and phone calls from people in his district. Only 12 of the correspondents backed the Senate immigration bill, and the rest reflected opinions similar to what Cotton himself expressed to his representatives in 2007.

The other animating reason for his stance is personal, he says, recalling an Afghan interpreter for his reconstruction team during his 2008 tour.

“I know an Afghan who served with me, who has literally shed blood for the United States, who could have easily immigrated here illegally,” Cotton said. “He has been trying for years to come here as a legal immigrant with his wife and two young girls, and provide them hope for the American dream. It is deeply unjust to tell him or millions like him because you obeyed the law and played by the rules, we are going to reward people who didn’t do that.”

He also cites the reliance of his units in Iraq and Afghanistan on “physical perimeters” to secure their bases -- advocating, in essence, full fencing.

The Senate bill would provide legal status for undocumented immigrants six months after the bill is enacted into law. From there, they would face a 13-year pathway to citizenship that includes paying back taxes and fines, and undergoing criminal background checks and other requirements. Immigrants would be prohibited from applying for a green card until border benchmarks on fencing, and drone and agent surveillance are met, and workplace verification systems are in place. But Cotton describes those requirements as “trivial” and doesn’t trust the administration to enforce the laws, a concern widely expressed by his GOP colleagues.

Cotton’s district is the biggest geographically of the four in Arkansas -- stretching from the Mississippi River to the border with Texas and Oklahoma -- and is also among the poorest, with persistently high unemployment.

While Paul Ryan has been pushing an economic case for reform by highlighting decreasing U.S. birth rates, Cotton says his constituents are worried about losing agricultural jobs to immigrants. Chicken farming is prevalent in his rural district, and there have been pockets with increased population of Hispanics, says Jay Barth, a political science professor at Hendrix College in Conway. The overall Latino population in Arkansas remains low, though it experienced a boost in the early 2000s.

“I don’t see [immigration] being the kind of issue that can just take over a race,” said Barth. “The question is: How well do groups and candidates target those issues to the right voters?”

Cotton said the immigration debate won’t affect his decision about entering the Senate race. “Good policy makes good politics,” he says, repeating the line many of his colleagues say when talking about the issue. He doesn’t buy into the conventional wisdom that Republicans need to pass reform to be a viable party in the 2016 presidential race, after losing Latinos so badly in 2012.

“Conservatives, Republicans, appeal best to Americans when we appeal to Americans of all races on same core issues: on individual liberty, on equal opportunity, the ability to work and succeed and provide a better opportunity for your family,” he said. It is liberals, he asserted, who are dividing Americans.

Many Republicans in the Senate disagree and believe immigration reform is an important gateway into the Latino community in order to talk about GOP values and initiatives. But Cotton is in the House, where the dynamics and politics are very different.

His maneuvering on the immigration issue will be important to watch. In the coming months, he will try “to make sure Congress doesn’t get the policy wrong on immigration. Because immigration bills are forever; they’re not splitable differences, like tax bills, where taxes can go up and go down. But once you grant amnesty, it’s forever,” he said. “And that’s why the stakes are so high.

Cotton said he will continue to meet one-on-one with GOP colleagues and make his arguments on the House floor and through the media and will work against a conference committee that might combine House and Senate plans. Chuck Schumer, an architect of the Senate bill, insists that a pathway to citizenship must be included in any conferenced legislation.

“As long as they say ‘my way or the highway,’ going to committee is like trying to play baseball in a hockey rink,” Cotton said. “There’s just no sense to it.” 

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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