Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), in a speech in Washington, urged Republicans to… (Alex Wong / Getty Images )
WASHINGTON — Republican leaders, increasingly anxious to push an immigration bill through the House despite opposition from many conservatives, have decided to downplay the question of whether illegal immigrants will qualify for citizenship and focus on other parts of the deal.
There are "literally dozens and dozens of issues that are involved in immigration reform," Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) told reporters Tuesday as he confidently predicted progress in the House. A bipartisan House group that has been meeting on immigration is "essentially in agreement over how to proceed," Boehner said, although aides to House leaders say a formal proposal appears unlikely until next month.
Similarly, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) laid out his position in a speech in Washington, urging Republicans to embrace immigrants and support reform of the nation's immigration laws, but avoiding any mention of the word "citizenship."
"We aren't going to deport 12 million illegal immigrants," he said in his speech to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, but left unstated what the ultimate status of illegal residents would be. Speaking to reporters afterward, Paul said he would not prohibit illegal immigrants from becoming citizens, but would not favor creating a special path for naturalization.
Ultimately, the push for reform could hinge on whether illegal immigrants would have a clear path to citizenship or be blocked from it, as some conservatives would like. President Obama has said he will not sign a bill that bars illegal immigrants from citizenship; the bill being negotiated by a bipartisan group in the Senate would allow citizenship, but only after a waiting period of more than a decade.
Although Republican leaders will have to deal with that issue eventually, they hope to put off a clash until they have built more support in the House for an immigration package. As Boehner put it, "There's a lot of education that needs to go on" to "bring our members along, to help them understand the issue."
Many Republican strategists believe that the party's competitiveness in future elections depends on resolving the immigration issue. Their goal is a bill that can pass the House and eventually be melded with a Senate-crafted proposal that would include a path to citizenship.
"We are seeing Republicans actually trying to corral, to get support from, members who in the past have been against immigration reform or are scared of the issue," said Alfonso Aguilar, a Republican strategist at the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, a Washington-based nonprofit group.
By contrast, he said, "we are not seeing that on the left — we aren't seeing an effort to put pressure on the unions" on other contentious issues involving legal entry for foreign workers for temporary employment.
Republican immigration advocates acknowledge, however, that opposition to anything that smacks of "amnesty" remains strong.
"I think the party's turned a corner," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told reporters Tuesday. Graham is one of four Senate Republicans writing a compromise bill with four Democrats. "This is the best year I've seen," he said. "But there will be resistance, trust me, there will be resistance."
Skeptical lawmakers are trying to slow the pace. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and five other members of the Senate Judiciary Committee wrote to panel Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) seeking to prevent what they described as a hasty effort.
Sessions told reporters that he opposed a pathway to citizenship. There is no "moral or legal responsibility to reward somebody who entered the country illegally with every benefit that you give to somebody who enters legally," he said.
"I don't feel left out; I am left out," Sessions added, referring to the so-called Gang of 8 effort in the Senate. "It looks to me like the same special interest groups are meeting in secret with a small group of senators who met in 2007," when immigration reform failed.
In the House, a group of four Republicans and four Democrats also has been meeting behind closed doors to write an immigration bill. That group accelerated its meetings in the last few weeks and could have a bill finished in April, after Congress returns from a two-week Easter recess, a congressional aide said.
A major effort in the House group has been aimed at keeping Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) in the talks. Labrador, an important conservative voice on immigration, has repeatedly signaled that he wanted to back out, according to people familiar with the discussions. Each time, he has been cajoled back to the table.
Speaking to reporters at a breakfast Tuesday, Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.), a member of the negotiating group, said the change in tone among Republicans had been "remarkable." In the first four hearings before the House Judiciary Committee, none of the witnesses has been from advocacy groups that oppose even legal immigration, he noted.
"The questions from almost all — not all, but almost all — of the Republicans are aimed at figuring out solutions," said Gutierrez, who has made immigrant rights his signature issue during his 20 years in Congress. "That is a huge change."