WASHINGTON — House Republicans confronting the politically volatile issue of immigration are wrestling with what to do about those already here illegally, with most Republicans reluctant to endorse citizenship for 11 million unauthorized immigrants but also shying away from suggestions of deportation.
As the House GOP prepares to meet Wednesday to debate the way forward on immigration, many lawmakers seem to be gravitating toward offering legal status of some kind for millions here illegally. But exactly what and how are far from clear.
For some, a guest worker status would be as far as it goes, while others are leaving open the possibility that once they're in the country legally, immigrants eventually could attain citizenship through existing channels of family or employer sponsorship. Still others are focused on citizenship for people brought to the country as youths, military veterans and perhaps others who've lived in the country for years and proven their contributions to society.
But with Democrats demanding nothing less than a straightforward if lengthy path to citizenship, like the provision in the Senate-passed immigration bill, it's questionable whether a compromise could get to President Barack Obama's desk.
"I do think there's a will to act. But the margin isn't huge in the House on the GOP side," said Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., who chairs the House Judiciary immigration subcommittee. Without Democratic support, "it's a very small number you can lose."
Republicans control 234 House seats and Democrats 201. Passing legislation requires a majority vote of 218 if all members are voting.
The immigration bill passed last month by the Democratic-controlled Senate, with the backing of the White House, would spend $46 billion on border security, create new legal avenues for workers to come to the country, require employers to verify their workers' legal status and offer eventual citizenship for those here illegally.
After months of delicate closed-door negotiations, the legislation passed on a bipartisan 68-32 vote. The calculus in the Republican-controlled House is more complex and daunting.
Many of the conservatives who wield power in the House are in districts with few Hispanic voters and are thus insulated from much of the pressure to act on immigration. Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, already has rejected the idea of bringing the Senate bill to the House floor. He has pledged that no legislation will move without the support of a majority of his Republicans.
Like many in his conference, Boehner has said border security must come first. And many Republicans prefer a piecemeal, step-by-step approach, rather than a single big bill like the one the Senate passed.
But for many, the most vexing issue is what to do about those who are already in the U.S. illegally.
The Senate bill offers a 13-year path for most, contingent on paying fines, learning English and meeting other qualifications. People brought to the United States as youths and agriculture workers would have a faster route.
House Democrats met Tuesday with the Senate Democratic authors of the bill and emerged to declare that nothing short of that would suffice.
"America has stood for citizenship," Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said. "We have a Statue of Liberty here. It never has said you come here and you'll be second class. We will not stand for it. It will not happen."
Obama also has said he would not sign a bill without a path to citizenship.
Several House Republicans said Tuesday that such demands may mean Democrats end up with no bill at all.
"That means that Schumer does not want immigration reform," said Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho. "If it's full path to citizenship or nothing else, it means that he's not willing to work with Republicans who are willing to do something a little bit less than that, that actually gets us to having an immigration reform bill, and I think that's unfortunate."
GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney fared abysmally with Hispanic and Asian voters last year after suggesting that people in the country illegally could "self-deport." Such suggestions have been heard rarely among Republicans since Romney's loss. But there is a hardcore group in the House that opposes any legal status for people here illegally.
"I'm not going to support any kind of legalization because legalization is amnesty, is eventual citizenship if not instantaneous citizenship, and if we do that we get more law breakers," Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, said.
More commonly, House Republicans voice support for some kind of earned legal status for people here illegally and, from there, perhaps the eventual possibility of citizenship. Many would start with allowing people to work here legally after paying fines and back taxes and meeting certain qualifications.
"I wouldn't prohibit forever" people from getting citizenship, said Rep. James Lankford, R-Okla. "I'm a Christian, and restitution and reconciliation's a big deal. If you do something illegal or inappropriate you should be able to resolve that, face the penalty, clear it and be forgiven."
Some House Republicans say that not all of those here illegally who are offered citizenship will act on it. A Pew Hispanic Center study in February said that of 5.4 million immigrants from Mexico who are eligible to become U.S. citizens, only 36 percent had taken the step. Across all immigrant groups, 61 percent of those eligible have achieved citizenship.