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GOP rethinks immigration stance

WASHINGTON -- What a difference one brutally disappointing election can make.

At this time last year, Republican U.S. presidential contenders were competing to act tough on immigration to win favor with the party's conservative base.

Eventual nominee Mitt Romney led the way by advocating “self-deportation” — a plan that essentially called on the government to make life so miserable for the nation's 11 million illegal immigrants, most of whom are Hispanics, that many would leave on their own.

But since Democratic President Barack Obama's decisive victory over Romney in November with the support of more than seven in 10 Hispanic voters, the game has changed.

Many Republicans now see gaining favor with the fast-growing Hispanic voting bloc, which accounts for 10 percent of the U.S. electorate and is growing, as a matter of political survival.

Some remain critical of any plan that would give illegal immigrants a path to citizenship. But next-generation Republican leaders — including Florida Senator Marco Rubio, 41, a favorite of the conservative Tea Party movement — are desperate to remove the issue as a liability for the party.

That is why a plan announced on Monday by a bipartisan group of eight U.S. senators including Rubio is widely seen as the best hope in years for a comprehensive immigration overhaul — even though it is similar to a 2007 plan that was shot down by conservative Republicans despite being backed by Republican President George W. Bush.

But now, “the politics on this issues have turned upside down,” said New York Democrat Chuck Schumer, another senator in the bipartisan group crafting the immigration plan.

“For the first time ever, there is more political risk in opposing immigration reform than in supporting it,” Schumer said.

Compared with the bitter, uncompromising politics that have clouded Capitol Hill in recent years, the news conference held by the senators on Monday was practically a festival of love.

There was Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona — who lost the presidential race to Obama in 2008 and is a frequent critic of the administration — heaping praise on the Democratic president for supporting immigration reform.

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