House Speaker John Boehner, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, and other leaders in the House are planning to make a case for taking up a controversial plan that could include some path to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants during the annual GOP retreat under way in Maryland.
Among the most contentious issue is a push by Boehner to pass some sort of immigration reform this year even as weary Republicans face tough midterm elections back home, The Hill reports.
On Thursday, secluded at a bayside hotel on Maryland's Eastern Shore for a three-day closed-door retreat, Republicans were thrashing out policy principles, guidelines for the 2014 mid-term election campaign, and ways to find common ground with President Barack Obama.
But the debate on immigration reform was front and center.
"This problem has been around for at least the last 15 years. It's been turned into a political football," Boehner told reporters on the sidelines of the closed-door sessions.
"I think it's unfair, so I think it's time to deal with it. But how you deal with it is going to be critically important," Boehner, of Ohio, said.
Republican leaders have acknowledged the need for reform, citing the party's low support among a growing Hispanic community.
But they have stressed they will proceed piecemeal rather than allowing a single grand reform bill to pass, while passing separate laws to address issues like improving border security.
"Doing immigration reform in a common-sense step-by-step manner helps our members understand the bite-sized pieces. And it helps our constituents build more confidence that what we're doing makes sense," Boehner added.
He would not be drawn into a discussion on whether the proposals address the critical legalization-versus-citizenship issue.
"We're going to talk to our members today about the principles that the leadership team has put together," he said. "I'm not going to get out any further."
GOP leadership is sensitive to concerns raised by party conservatives that legalizing undocumented immigrants is akin to amnesty.
After Obama's State of the Union address, conservative Republican Steve King of Iowa said he would be leaning hard on members at the retreat against backing a pathway to citizenship or legalization.
"If we set up people to say 'we're going to legalize you, but you'll never get a path to citizenship,' then there are two classes of people in this country. That's a bad idea," King said.
Last year's landmark bipartisan Senate bill offered the most comprehensive immigration overhaul in a generation, boosting border security, reforming visa rules, and providing a 13-year pathway to citizenship for millions.
But the Republican-led House refused to take it up, despite calls from some business groups which lean Republican but support immigration reform as a way to boost the economy.
Ryan has also said that immigration reform in the House would happen in pieces
, and on Wednesday hinted that rather than a full "path to citizenship," the GOP plan would entail granting probationary legal status to some illegal immigrants, but citizenship would not be automatic.
The federal government would have to meet certain requirements, like securing the border, before there would be outright amnesty.
The former vice presidential candidate said House Republicans think such requirements are necessary to make sure President Obama actually enforces it, which, he added "is a big concern of ours these days."
Some Republicans are quite vocal in their beliefs that the immigration issue is political suicide heading into the 2014 midterm elections, due to the divisive nature of the issue in the Republican Party.
"You can probably look to the Senate to see what [immigration] does to Republican unity," said Rep. Tom Graves of Georgia. "It's a very divisive issue, a very difficult issue."
A bipartisan immigration measure failed in the Senate in June, tarnishing the reputation of some of its strongest GOP supporters, especially co-author Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.
The American Principles Project, a conservative group that is trying to engage more Latinos in conservative issues such as immigration, has said that getting conservatives in the House on board with an immigration plan is essential to its passage.
Several conservative commentators have come out against passing immigration reform this year.
"It's one of the few things that could actually disrupt what looks like a strong Republican year," Bill Kristol of the Weekly Standard told The New York Times.
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