WASHINGTON (AP/The Blaze) — Republicans eliminated a potential liability with Latino voters Friday by refusing to give the top spot on an immigration subcommittee to a congressman who once proposed stopping illegal immigrants with an electrified fence.
The expectation was that Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, House Judiciary Committee chairman, would choose fellow Republican Rep. Steve King of Iowa to be the next chairman of the Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on immigration, citizenship and other related issues.
Instead he chose California Rep. Elton Gallegly, who is considered an immigration hawk, but who is less likely to make explosive comments that make him an easy target for critics.
Efforts by The Associated Press and King to talk about the development Friday were unsuccessful. A spokeswoman for Smith did not return phone and e-mail messages from the AP requesting comment.
Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, said the choice for the subcommittee chairmanship was Smith's. He said Boehner did not make a recommendation.
By choosing Gallegly, Republicans get a subcommittee chairman whose public comments are less likely to be incendiary and won't GOP hurt efforts to become more Latino-friendly, while depriving Democrats of an easy target in the run-up to the 2012 presidential elections.
Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, said the decision is a clear message Republican leadership doesn't want to antagonize Latinos.
King was the top Republican on the same immigration subcommittee in the last Congress and was expected to be in charge when Republicans took control of the House.
In 2007, Rep. King suggested on the House floor that an electrified fence could be put on the border to stop illegal immigrants. "We do that with livestock all the time," he said then.
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King also accused President Barack Obama of favoring blacks and referred to settlement of a discrimination lawsuit filed by black farmers and Native Americans as "reparations."
But he has his supporters for his tough talk on illegal immigration. On Wednesday, he introduced a bill to deny U.S.-born children of immigrants automatic citizenship. Smith has said he only wants to advance legislation that has widespread support from Americans.
Angie Kelley, an immigration expert at the Center for American Progress, said Gallegly is quieter than King on his immigration views, "but his restrictionist roots are very clear and they run very deep."
Gallegly helped create the pilot program that led to the E-Verify system, got an amendment passed in the House to deny education to children of illegal immigrants and other tough measures. But in 1995, he sponsored a bill that would have given legal status to agricultural workers.
Roy Beck, president of Numbers USA, which lobbies for tough immigration laws, said his group has given Gallegly an "A" for his career work on immigration and is happy with his appointment to the chairmanship. But he said King will continue to be a force as vice chairman of the committee.
"If this was about trying to muzzle an outspoken member," Beck said, "it is not going to be very effective."
Associated Press writer Kevin Freking contributed to this report.