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House Republicans Are of Many Minds on Immigration

Are House Republicans prepared to pass an overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws in 2014?

It depends on whom you ask.

“It’s a very bad time to do anything on this,” Rep. John Fleming, R-La., said.

“Something has to happen on immigration, and it’s something we as a conference should take up,” countered Rep. Dennis A. Ross, R-Fla.

“I don’t know,” Rep. Ander Crenshaw, R-Fla., admitted with a shrug. “It’s hard to say.”

Indeed, attempting to quantify the House Republican Conference’s collective appetite for pursuing polarizing legislation in an election year is a virtually impossible task — one that leaders have set for themselves as they head to their annual retreat starting Jan. 29 in Cambridge, Md.

To get their members energized and focused on the issue, Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, and his top lieutenants are about to unveil a set of principles for an immigration overhaul. They could be distributed to lawmakers as early as Friday, but likely not until lawmakers have settled into the retreat, sources say.

The principles aren’t expected to be revelatory and members are saying they anticipate the treatise to be repetitive of what leaders have said in the past: Namely, that the House won’t pursue an immigration overhaul bill that’s as comprehensive or wide sweeping as the Senate’s, nor will it go to conference with the Senate bill. And there will surely be an emphasis on securing the border and enforcing the law.

But the fight has always been over what to do with the nation’s 11 million illegal immigrants and finding a sweet spot on that issue with which everyone can live.

Democrats and the White House have said they will balk at anything that doesn’t provide a promise that those 11 million people could one day obtain citizenship, while a certain contingent of House Republicans will revolt over anything that stops short of deporting them.

The good news for immigration overhaul advocates is that more and more GOP lawmakers from across the ideological spectrum appear to be growing receptive to giving undocumented immigrants a chance to receive legal status.

Rep. Tom Reed, R-N.Y., suggested confining the conversation to legal status and withholding the citizenship pathway as the “penalty” could “move the ball in and of itself.”

Ross agreed there is a way to “allow for legal status … without giving anybody amnesty.”
A GOP leadership aide signaled that while there may still be a lot to hash out, the softening within the conference on the legal status question bodes well for what the principles could accomplish as far as building consensus: “Members are in a much different place than they were last year.”
Take the wild cards, such as Rep. Mark Meadows. Against the wishes of leadership, the freshman Republican from North Carolina led the charge to defund Obamacare in the continuing resolution last fall that culminated in the government shutdown; now, he’s breaking with his fellow hard-line conservatives to support a legal status for illegal immigrants.

“I’ve got farmers back in my district that feel like we have to deal with this immigration issue,” Meadows said. “They feel, by not acting, we’re making a decision.”

Other factions within the conference still present significant stumbling blocks to action on immigration.

“I think we’re spinning our wheels in mud,” said Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz. “What we need to do is hold people accountable for their actions, make sure the rule of law’s upheld, and until we do that … I don’t know why we’re passing anything.”

Then there are some others, like Rep. John Carter, R-Texas, who were at one point working to pass an immigration overhaul but have given up.

“It’s an election year,” Carter explained. “Every state, as you move along, immigration is a very, very contentious issue.”

Others argue that the full chamber should consider the four piecemeal bills that have been passed out of the Judiciary Committee.

“Everyone understands we should secure the border, that we should have an E-Verify system that works, that high-skilled, high-tech STEM people who get educated by good universities should be able to work here, and everybody understands you need a guest worker program,” said Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, ticking off the list of bills.

“Let’s focus on those things,” Jordan continued. “Ask the president why he wants to hold up things everybody agrees with just because of the politics of the 11 million.”

Daniel Newhauser contributed to this report.

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