The 2011 Legislative session hasn’t even started yet, but there’s already a fight brewing. Not between Democrats and Republicans, but within the Republican Party itself.

This isn’t terribly surprising since the entire 2010 election was defined by infighting within the GOP in Colorado. But it is a bit surprising to see it set up this early.

The Republican Study Committee of Colorado, a group of Conservative Republican lawmakers, held a summit this week to discuss what they feel is the most crucial issue facing this state, illegal immigration.

While illegal immigration was a top issue in this state a few years ago, right now the issue is only important to a small group of people. Those people are the conservative Republican voters that helped some conservative Republican candidates get elected this year.

This sets up the problem for the state’s GOP. The GOP owns a newly minted, razor-thin majority in the State House. However, this majority is split between moderates and conservatives.

Putting the illegal immigration issue front and center is forcing moderate Republicans to pick sides in a lose-lose fight.

Either moderates choose to side with conservatives and threaten to lose any opportunity to actually work on getting any issues passed through a Democratic Senate, or they side with Democrats and split the very majority they just won.

Expect Democrats to use this conundrum to their advantage. Winning two moderate Republican votes to their side will be far easier if these conservative lawmakers turn immigration into a litmus test.

Stopping this situation from tearing the majority asunder will be the biggest test of the new Republican House leadership. If they allow these conservatives to let immigration steal the spotlight, they will sign their majority’s death warrant.

I know that sounds dramatic, but the move carries an enormous amount of risk and very little upside. With a Democratic Senate, any immigration bill won’t even get to Governor Hickenlooper for an obligatory veto.  It’s not like any progress on the issue can be made this year.

The only upside would come from the electorate seeing this as the best use of the legislature’s time.  Voters would need to believe the reason they aren’t seeing more jobs in Colorado is because illegal immigrants currently have them. And since many illegal immigrants have actually moved away, since their jobs have disappeared as well, that’s a tough argument to make.

House GOP leaders can decide to take one of two paths. They can allow conservatives to set the tone and watch their issues be dashed over and over again by a Democratic Senate and Governor. Or they can seek some compromise on other issues and actually see some progress, with education reforms a likely favorite.

I know compromise isn’t sexy, but wasting a majority on a lose-lose battle is even less sexy.


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