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The GOP had two people give the SOTU response — but only one mentioned one big issue

Congressman Carlos Curbelo.
Congressman Carlos Curbelo.
Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call

UPDATE: This post was initially written to reflect initial reports that the 2015 SOTU response would be the same as past years, with the Spanish response a simple translation of the English one. This year, despite those reports, the two speeches were different. (Here's more on the differences between the two.) This article has been updated accordingly.

After President Obama gave his State of the Union address tonight, Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) delivered the traditional Republican response. Then, Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL) also delivered the traditional Republican response.

Ernst's was in English, and Curbelo's was in Spanish.

This is the fourth time the GOP has translated its State of the Union response into Spanish. And in the past, the Spanish version was always been a translation of the English original. But this year, the GOP decided that the two speeches shouldn't be identical.

One probable reason: the two Republicans giving the responses differ so dramatically on one of the key issues facing their party. The gap between the two is so big, in fact, that Ernst's SOTU response couldn't touch on immigration at all.

Ernst vs. Curbelo: A critic of "amnesty" vs. a supporter of immigration reform

Sen. Joni Ernst

Freshman senator Joni Ernst: the down-the-line conservative. (Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call Group Getty)

Joni Ernst, the newly-elected Iowa senator who gave the Republican response in English, is a standard conservative on immigration — which is to say, an opponent of a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants, and of President Obama's recent executive actions to protect many of them from deportation. She's going to be speaking at an immigration summit this weekend hosted by Rep. Steve King of Iowa — the leading immigration hawk in the House of Representatives. (Jeb Bush, who's generally attempted to be a moderate on this issue, is pointedly refusing to attend King's conference because he finds King too radical.) In 2007, as a county auditor, Ernst joined a lawsuit against Iowa state officials for offering voting materials in languages other than English. And when running for Senate in 2014, she said that she opposed amnesty — and she said that the immigration bill passed by the Senate in 2013 would count as "amnesty."

Carlos Curbelo, the freshman congressman from the Miami area who gave the Spanish translation of the speech, however, is very much not in line with the conservative wing of his party on immigration. He came into office saying that he would have voted for the comprehensive immigration bill the Senate passed in 2013, which included a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants, and criticized "Republicans in the House who've blocked immigration reform" — the group led by Steve King.

Carlos Curbelo

Congressman-elect Carlos Curbelo interviewed by Univision on election night. (Screenshot from Univision)

Curbelo just voted against his party on this last week

Last week, the House voted on a pair of amendments to stop President Obama from implementing his executive actions on immigration as a condition of funding the Department of Homeland Security. Curbelo was one of only seven Republicans who voted against both amendments; after they were added anyway, he voted against the bill. The other Republican no votes came from Florida's other two Hispanic Republicans, and four Republican members whose districts are increasingly Latino — a sign that some Republicans, at least, see "Hispanic outreach" and "opposing Obama on immigration" as mutually exclusive.

Ernst hasn't taken a stand on the House DHS bill yet — many Senate Republicans oppose Obama's immigration actions but are squeamish about this bill, because they know it won't pass into law and they're worried about the prospects of a DHS shutdown at the end of February. But she has promised in the past to "fight executive amnesty."

GOP latino vote

(Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call Group)

Obama let the GOP off the hook by not making a big deal out of immigration

Since Ernst and Curbelo gave similar speeches in two different languages, the main text couldn't be anything either of them would object to. An attack on Obama's "executive amnesty" would force Curbelo substantially to the right of his current position — which would cause massive trouble within his heavily-Latino swing district. By the same token, if Ernst said anything that could be interpreted as pro-amnesty, the right would be outraged — and it would undo any goodwill the GOP built up with its base over last week's bill. So the solution was for Ernst not to say anything about immigration at all, while Curbelo mentioned the parts of immigration reform that aren't controversial among Republicans: border security and reforming legal immigration.

The lucky thing for the GOP is that the president left them off the hook. If he'd discussed immigration at length in the State of the Union, they'd look extremely awkward by ignoring it. But since the president himself barely mentioned immigration in his speech — and didn't spend any time defending his executive actions — they didn't really have much they'd need to respond to.