House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), left, and House Speaker John… (Mark Wilson / Getty Images )
WASHINGTON — Seeking to make an overhaul of immigration laws a priority, House Speaker John A. Boehner vowed Wednesday that he would soon release a document of conservative "principles" on the issue intended to prod Republicans to pass a series of bills this year.
The high-profile promise from the Ohio Republican, who is drafting a one-page list with his leadership team, comes as he is eager to press ahead on a topic that is important to his party's political future. But the speaker faces continued resistance from powerful conservative groups and an intractable flank of House Republicans who oppose citizenship for the estimated 11 million immigrants in the country illegally.
"We are working on a standards or principles document," Boehner told House Republicans in their first closed-door meeting in the new year, according to a Republican in the room who, like others discussing the internal deliberations, asked not to be identified.
Even though the document is expected to be vague, immigration advocates viewed it as a clear sign Boehner and his leadership team will try to persuade their reluctant majority to act on the issue. The Senate-passed immigration overhaul has languished in the House.
"It's a big deal," said Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice and a longtime immigration advocate. "They're saying definitively to their members: We're doing this."
The document is the first stage in a plan by GOP leaders to consider immigration bills as soon as April, after most of the election filing deadlines have passed for House races.
"Many are in solid red districts, and if they don't have a challenger, they will feel more comfortable voting for immigration bills," said Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, a Washington-based advocacy group working to bring Latinos into the conservative movement.
In a sign of the push-back Boehner faces, two conservative Republicans stood up during the session in the Capitol basement to voice their opposition to the speaker's approach, sources said.
But after the meeting, other Republicans appeared open to Boehner's move.
"He's trying to get it higher on the priority list," said Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.), a conservative who has a growing Latino population in his Omaha-area district. "We have to work on it."
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Republican from Florida who has been a key advocate of allowing immigrants in the country illegally to become citizens, said Boehner was taking a "methodical" approach in order to get the majority of Republicans on board.
Diaz-Balart has been working with other Republicans to draft bills that could be brought to a vote this year. "I think we have a very realistic opportunity to get this done," he said.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a traditional ally of House Republicans, is planning to "pull out all the stops" to press Congress to pass immigration reform this year. Thomas J. Donohue, the group's president, said in a speech Wednesday that the business lobby would team with unions, faith leaders, law enforcement groups and others to "make 2014 the year that immigration reform is finally enacted."
House Republicans have struggled to respond to the Senate's immigration bill, which passed in June and would create a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants. Boehner refused to bring the bill up for a vote last year and said the House would write its own measures.
These narrower bills would boost the number of visas for high-tech workers, fast-track legalization for farmworkers in the country illegally, and allow immigrants who came to the country illegally as children to apply for legal status, among other provisions.
House Republicans have not decided how to deal with the vast majority of the people who are in the U.S. illegally. President Obama has said he would not sign a bill that would prevent them from earning citizenship.
A small team of GOP representatives and staffers has been working for several weeks to draft a statement of basic principles on immigration policy. Last month, Boehner hired Rebecca Tallent, a former immigration advisor to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), to coordinate the effort. She is a veteran of McCain's attempt to pass immigration reform in President George W. Bush's second term.
Boehner hopes to present the document to House Republicans at their retreat this month.