Immigration reform entered an uncertain new phase on Wednesday as House Republicans signaled some willingness to compromise with President Barack Obama and Democrats but rejected a Senate-passed bill and insisted they would take their time drafting their own version.
Following more than two hours of talks on how to proceed, GOP legislators said the biggest question was whether to give the 11 million immigrants living illegally in the United States a path to eventual citizenship, as provided by the Senate measure.
Participants in the Republican caucus meeting described a 50-50 split over the undocumented immigrant issue, with more consensus on the need to produce some kind of legislation to show the party's commitment to fixing a broken system and addressing concerns of Hispanic Americans -- the nation's largest minority demographic.
Despite the divisions on the undocumented immigrant issue, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia told the GOP members that children living illegally in the United States through no fault to their own should receive legal status.
House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte said he and fellow Virginia Republican Cantor were working together on a bill focused on children, which is a priority of Democrats pushing for immigration reform.
At the same time, House GOP leaders made clear they intended to slow the process down by tackling individual components of the broad measure passed by the Democratic-led Senate last month with bipartisan support.
Prospect of political attacks
That means taking up smaller bills on specific provisions, such as border security and employment verification measures, in coming months while also seeking a compromise within the caucus on providing legal status for undocumented immigrants.
House Speaker John Boehner warned his caucus that Republicans would face political attacks if they failed to move legislation, according to several GOP sources in the room.
"We don't want the White House to hope that we fail to make it a campaign issue," said GOP Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas. "House Republicans want to do this on our terms, and not on the Senate's terms and not on the White House terms."
Another prominent House GOP leader, Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, told his colleagues that doing nothing was not an option.
The unsuccessful Republican vice presidential nominee in last year's election, Ryan made the case also pushed by the White House that immigration reform would help boost the American economy, participants said.
Meanwhile, a group of bipartisan House legislators trying to draft its own immigration measure met for several hours on Tuesday night and would continue its work, said Democratic Rep. Xavier Becerra of California.
The group is working on a comprehensive bill closer in form to the Senate measure and Becerra argued the incremental approach advocated by House Republicans wouldn't work.
"It's better to eat your Wheaties and do it right than do it poorly and 5-10 years from now have to come back at it again," Becerra said.
Path to legal status
The 1,000-plus page Senate immigration bill passed last month takes a comprehensive approach that removes the threat of immediate deportation for most undocumented immigrants and provides a path to legal status and eventual citizenship.
It also includes stronger enforcement provisions including the virtual militarization of the Mexican border with almost double the agents, new technology and a longer fence, as well as requiring employers to verify the immigration status of workers and improved monitoring of visa holders.
While the Senate measure passed 68-32 with support from 14 Republicans, House GOP leaders insist they will not bring it up because most of their caucus opposes it.
Boehner has repeatedly said any immigration bill brought up for a House vote must have support from a majority of Republicans, and he repeated that guarantee to his GOP caucus on Wednesday.
Democrats called on Boehner to allow a House vote on the Senate version, believing it could pass with unified Democratic support along with several dozen Republicans.
Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the No. 2 Democrat in the House, said Wednesday that Republicans were "splintered and confused" on immigration, describing what he called a "deeply divided party" that was "much more into ideology than they are into solving problems."
Midterms loom in 2014
The immigration issue will be significant in next year's congressional elections, with House Republicans under pressure from conservatives to oppose what the political right-wing calls amnesty in the form of a path to legal status and even citizenship for people who sneaked into the country illegally or overstayed their visas.
"Once you start down that line, you're destroying the rule of law," conservative GOP Rep. Steve King of Iowa said after Wednesday's caucus meeting.