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Cantor signals shift on immigration as he lays out GOP agenda

February 05, 2013|By Michael A. Memoli

WASHINGTON -- House Majority Leader Eric Cantor outlined a kinder, gentler House Republican agenda for the coming term that puts a greater emphasis on kitchen table issues, and called for a path to citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants.

Two years after the Republicans came to power in the House on a wave of tea party fervor, Cantor’s speech at a DC think tank Tuesday – entitled “Making Life Work” –  marked the start of an effort to move beyond the budget fights that have come to define the party at a time of divided government.

He outlined a handful of initiatives on education and health care the GOP majority has pushed before, but ones that were relegated to the second-tier after a relentless focus on government spending and deficits during the party’s first years in power. The exception was on immigration reform, one of two major issues other than the budget that President Obama has pushed Congress to tackle in the near term.

U.S. immigration law: Decades of debate

“While we are a nation that allows anyone to start anew, we are also a nation of laws, and that’s what makes tackling the issue of immigration reform so difficult,” he said. But “one of the great founding principles of our country was that children would not be punished for the mistakes of their parents. It is time to provide an opportunity for legal residence and citizenship for those who were brought to this country as children and who know no other home.”

Cantor gave no further details on exactly what he would support in an immigration reform package. In a question-and-answer session, he said he had not yet studied the principles outlined by a bipartisan group of senators, but praised the work of one in particular, Florida's Marco Rubio. On Capitol Hill, the House Judiciary Committee was holding its first hearing on immigration reforms.

The leader’s remarks were billed as the start of a rollout of the House GOP’s priorities for the 113th Congress, in which the party still controls the majority of seats in the lower chamber, though fewer as a result of the 2012 elections.

Cantor noted that lawmakers’ focus has been centered squarely on “cliffs, debt ceilings and budgets.” He maintained that there “is no greater moral imperative” than reducing the nation’s debt, and called on the president and his party to “finally join us in our efforts to tackle the big problems facing America.”

TRANSCRIPT: President Obama on immigration reform

But he said the time had come “to focus our attention on what lies beyond these fiscal debates,” and tried to reframe the party’s focus in terms most Americans could relate to.

“Government policy should aim to strike a balance between what is needed to advance the next generation, what we can afford, what is a federal responsibility and what is necessary to ensure our children are safe, healthy and able to reach their dreams,” the Virginia Republican said.

A week before Obama’s State of the Union address, Cantor had some of the flourishes of the presidential speech. He pointed to members of the audience who represented the initiatives Republicans hope to advance – increased use of charter schools to help “the most vulnerable”; expanding a visa program to allow foreign nationals with advanced degrees to stay in the U.S.; giving more hourly workers flexibility to spend more time with their families; and simplifying the tax code.

“It has gotten a lot tougher to raise a family here in America. Our goal should be to eliminate this doubt gripping our nation’s families, and to restore their hope and confidence so that parents can once again see a better tomorrow for their children,” he said.

Earlier Tuesday, House Speaker John Boehner signaled his support for what he called his deputy’s “important speech.”

PHOTOS: President Obama’s past

“If we're going to connect with the American people, it's important that they see not only that we're serious about solving our debt problem, but we're serious about addressing issues like energy, like education, to show really the breadth of the efforts that we're involved in. So I encourage the members to pay close attention to what Eric had to say,” he said.

Democrats, though, dissed the speech as the latest in a string of failed “rebranding” efforts, particularly ahead of the rollout of a new budget proposal from Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) that they argue would be detrimental to working families.

“Despite Cantor’s lip service to working mothers, the Ryan Budget on steroids would be nothing short of a disaster for working moms, dads and all middle-class families in America,” the office of Democratic leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco said in a statement.

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michael.memoli@latimes.com

Twitter: @mikememoli

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