Deeply divided, Republicans struggled without success Wednesday to find common ground over how to deal with the estimated 11 million immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally.
Republicans in the House of Representatives emerged from a 2.5-hour closed-door meeting united in seeking tougher border security but with no solution for dealing with immigrants who already are here illegally.
“We didn’t decide anything,” said Rep. John Fleming, R-La. “We aired out our feelings.”
The party schism pits establishment figures such as former President George W. Bush and possible White House contender Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., on one side and the party’s potent conservative base on the other.
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The split was evident as the House Republicans huddle to plan their approach now that the Senate has passed an immigration overhaul that includes a path to citizenship for those who are in the U.S. illegally.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, all but ruled out the kind of compromise plan that passed the Senate last month, saying he’d allow the House to vote only on a measure that a majority of Republicans supported. The speaker “reassured people that, look, we’re not in a hurry here. We want to get something done – we think it’s very important to have a bill that passes – but we’re going to do it with a majority of the majority,” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla.
After the meeting, Republican leaders issued a statement that asserted Americans “don’t trust a Democratic-controlled Washington, and they’re alarmed by the president’s ongoing insistence on enacting a single, massive, Obamacare-like bill rather than pursuing a step-by-step, common-sense approach to actually fix the problem.”
Just what the Republican alternative should be remains uncertain, and it was apparent Wednesday that to ease GOP tension, “We need a couple more conferences like this,” said Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho. Most lawmakers said that getting much done this month seemed unlikely, as they want to head home for the five-week August recess and talk to constituents.
There’s broad agreement among House Republicans on taking strong new steps to secure the nation’s southern border and legalizing the status of certain immigrants. The House Judiciary Committee already has approved a series of bills that deal with tougher enforcement as well as visas for high-tech workers and special provisions for agricultural workers.
But there’s little support for a path to citizenship like the one the Senate approved June 27. That measure, which 14 Republican senators supported and 32 opposed, sets up an elaborate system that ties legalization to enhanced border security.
House Republicans almost unanimously contend that approach is too lenient on immigrants who already are here illegally, since it allows most of them to stay in the country. Some lawmakers suggest giving those immigrants legal status but not citizenship. A plan to give children who were brought into the country illegally by their parents a path to citizenship also is being floated.
Such tactics weren’t discussed much at the meeting Wednesday, as lawmakers were intent on expressing where they stood. Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., read a portion of the lyrics from “America the Beautiful” that summed up his thoughts on revamping the immigration laws. “Confirm thy soul in self-control, Thy liberty in law!” Brooks read.
“And so,” he explained, “We should never support a policy that undermines the rule of law, that is undermining what has made our country what it is.” He added that such undermining includes “Anything that rewards or ratifies illegal conduct.”
“So anyone who comes to our country whose first step on American soil is to thumb their nose at American law, violate our laws, we should not reward them,” Brooks said.
Pressure to act is building from outside the Capitol, however, as Republican establishment figures and influential special-interest groups push hard for a legalization program. They see political consequences: The Republican presidential nominee got 27 percent of the 2012 vote, and party officials fear they might lose even more support in the Latino community if they appear intolerant or insensitive.
Bush offered his views Wednesday at the George W. Bush Institute in Dallas. "We can uphold our tradition of assimilating immigrants and honoring our heritage of our nation built on the rule of law. But we have a problem," he said. "The laws governing the immigration system aren’t working; the system is broken."
An advocate of a broad overhaul of immigration laws, Bush enjoyed the support of 44 percent of Hispanics when he was re-elected in 2004. But he failed to get an overhaul through Congress, left office with his overall popularity hurt by unpopular wars and recession, and has little influence in the party.
"I don’t intend to get involved in the politics or the specifics of policy, but I do hope there’s a positive resolution to the debate," he said. "And I hope, during the debate, we keep a benevolent spirit in mind, and we understand the contributions immigrants make to our country."
The White House offered its own offensive Wednesday: President Barack Obama’s administration released a report that shows the Senate bill would boost the U.S. economy and help create jobs.
The report – released by the president’s National Economic Council, Domestic Policy Council, Office of Management and Budget, and Council of Economic Advisers – indicates that changes to the immigration system also would lower federal budget deficits. Obama met Wednesday with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and said he’d press the economic argument.
“Today, too many employers game the system by hiring undocumented workers, and there are 11 million people living and working in the shadow economy. Neither is good for the economy or the country. It is time to fix our broken immigration system,” the report said.
It includes statements of support from organizations such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Americans for Tax Reform and the Business Roundtable for an immigration overhaul.
Video: Debate on Border Control Divides Opinions in US