House Republicans are meeting Wednesday to hash out their own strategy on immigration, but already one major difference has emerged between them and their Senate counterparts — they are far less enthusiastic about an eventual path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
Even many of the 32 Senate Republicans who voted against their immigration bill last month said they think a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants is necessary, and eventually likely. But in the House, that's far from a majority stance.
"I believe any talk about a pathway to citizenship will only make the problem worse because our borders are open and you're encouraging people to come here illegally," said Rep. Lou Barletta, a Pennsylvania Republican who pioneered immigration crackdowns as a mayor before winning election to Congress.
He said the chief goal for Republicans when they huddle Wednesday afternoon to talk strategy should be to establish that immigration enforcement must come before anything else.
For Democrats, the path to citizenship is non-negotiable as a part of the bill.
"Without a path to citizenship, there is not going to be a bill," Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, said as he emerged from a meeting with House Democrats.
Mr. Schumer's Senate bill offers illegal immigrants quick legal status and work permits but withholds full citizenship rights for most of them until more than a decade down the road. Younger illegal immigrants and those doing agriculture work with have a quicker path.
Democrats hope to convince Republicans in heavily Hispanic districts that it's in their political interests to vote with Democrats to back the path to citizenship, but many Republicans say that amounts to amnesty.
House Republicans meet at 3 p.m. Wednesday to talk about how to proceed. After they hash out the issue, the leaders will meet to decide a final path forward.
Several options are on the table.
They could take up individual bills to boost border security, to impose a mandatory electronic verification system for employers to check the status of potential hires, and to rewrite parts of the legal immigration system; or they could combine those into one broad bill.
Another option is to wait for a broad bill that is being written by a bipartisan group of seven lawmakers, and that is closer to the Senate's approach, complete with a specific path to citizenship.
Rep. Steve King, Iowa Republican, said it was dangerous to broach any broad immigration bill as long as Democrats have a majority in the Senate and control the White House. He said there would be pressure to include at least some legal status for illegal immigrants, which eventually would become full citizenship.
"Anything that contemplates legalization ends up in citizenship, so that is just how it ends," he said.
He said he has seen some signs of movement from his own party leadership in recent weeks. Indeed, while House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, hasn't changed positions, his emphasis has shifted since last year.
Just after President Obama won re-election, Mr. Boehner announced that House Republicans would tackle immigration and said a "comprehensive approach is long overdue." This week, though, Mr. Boehner stressed a piecemeal approach and drew a line in saying Congress should delay any legalization of illegal immigrants and even put off rewriting the legal immigration system until after the borders are secure.
"It's real clear, from everything that I've seen and read over the last couple of weeks, that the American people expect that we'll have strong border security in place before we begin the process of legalizing and fixing our legal immigration system," Mr. Boehner said.
Making sure Mr. Boehner sticks to that stricter line is a key goal of rank-and-file Republicans heading into Wednesday's meeting.
"I think we're going to air all that out and let leadership know that the House does not act until we know that the borders are secure. That's really our stance," said Rep. John Fleming, Louisiana Republican. "We want to be sure he agrees with us. That's why we're holding this meeting."
Mr. Boehner has said he won't bring a bill to the House floor unless it has the support of a majority of Republicans in the chamber, which likely dooms a path to citizenship and imperils chances for getting a final House-Senate deal.
Instead, both chambers appear to be headed for a similar situation to 2006, when the Senate last passed a broad immigration bill and the House passed an enforcement-only bill, and they couldn't come to an agreement on a compromise.
Rep. James Lankford, Oklahoma Republican and chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee, said for Senate Democrats to reject any security efforts unless they are attached to legalization and citizenship rights is a mistake.
"There are a lot of issues that we can find agreement on — let's find the areas we can agree on, settle those, and move on and if we have some issues we can't settle, let's put those off for another year," he said. "But if we find issues that we can resolve, let's resolve those."
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