Former President George W. Bush poses with new U.S. citizen Phuong Quynh… (LM Otero / Associated Press )
WASHINGTON — Facing deep resistance among House Republicans to citizenship for the estimated 11 million immigrants in the country illegally, GOP leaders are trying to muster support for a stripped-down immigration reform bill that would offer citizenship only to those brought into the country as children.
The plan, which would almost certainly be a nonstarter for President Obama and Democrats who control the Senate, makes clear there will be no quick agreement on a Senate-passed bill and illustrates how wide the gap remains over fundamental immigration reform.
The immigration bill that passed the Senate last month would provide provisional legal status followed by a 13-year path to citizenship for most of those who currently live in the country without legal authorization. Democratic leaders repeatedly have said they would not accept any bill that falls short of that.
But, along with border security provisions that House committees already have worked on, the "kids first" plan, as supporters refer to it, might provide an alternative on which the House could act, keeping alive the possibility of an eventual compromise.
The proposal, pushed by Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), has gained ground among Republicans. Cantor discussed it during a free-flowing, two-hour, closed-door meeting of House Republicans on Wednesday in which lawmakers lined up dozens deep in the Capitol's basement to air their views on the best way to proceed.
Party leaders repeatedly warned their members about the dangers of inaction on immigration. Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) told his troops the House would not consider the Senate bill, which most House Republicans oppose. But he warned them the party would pay a price for failing to pass some immigration legislation.
Boehner said at the meeting that "we need to move something," said Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), an ally.
Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), last year's Republican vice presidential nominee, said at the meeting that immigration reform would be good for economic growth. He echoed Boehner in saying that doing nothing was not an option.
Despite those admonishments, the deep divisions within the GOP on the issue were clearly evident.
Many conservatives in the House would prefer to provide only a legal status that would explicitly not lead to citizenship. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a key architect of the Senate bill, and others have opposed that idea because it would create a permanent noncitizen class in the country.
Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.) objected that the Senate bill's path to citizenship was too "arbitrary."
"We've still got a long way to go," said Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), who crafted a tough-on-enforcement immigration bill for Republicans in 2006.
In a statement released after the meeting, Boehner, Cantor and other Republican House leaders said that "House Republicans affirmed that rather than take up the flawed legislation rushed through the Senate, House committees will continue their work on a step-by-step, common-sense approach to fixing what has long been a broken system."
"The American people want our border secured, our laws enforced, and the problems in our immigration system fixed to strengthen our economy," the statement said.
A step-by-step approach brings its own problems. The Senate's 1,000-page package represented hard-fought compromises among key business, labor and political groups hashed out over months of negotiations. Pulling out any one component could cause other compromises to unravel.
Along with the pathway to citizenship sought by Democrats and immigrant advocacy groups, the Senate bill includes a $46-billion border security package designed to appeal to Republicans. The legislation aims to stem the future flow of illegal immigration by increasing the number of legal guest workers. And it would require that all companies verify the legal status of new hires.
As the lawmakers debated, prominent Republicans outside of Washington, including former President George W. Bush, pressed the party to move forward on an issue many believe is vital to its future.
"We're a nation of immigrants, and we must uphold that tradition — which has strengthened our country in so many ways," Bush said during an address to a naturalization ceremony at his newly opened presidential library in Dallas.
"We have a problem. The laws governing the immigration system are broken. The system is broken," the former president said. "I don't particularly want to be involved in the politics or the specifics of policy. But I do hope there is a positive resolution to the debate."
During his presidency, Bush sought unsuccessfully to reform the nation's immigration laws. Strategists close to him have long argued that Republicans need to reach out to Latinos and other minority voters, and that argument gained strength with last fall's presidential election, in which Latino and minority voters voted against GOP nominee Mitt Romney in large numbers.