WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama's new declaration that he's open to legalizing many immigrants short of citizenship sounds a lot like House Speaker John Boehner and other GOP leaders, an election-year compromise that numerous Republicans as well as Democrats crave.
But the drive for the first overhaul in three decades still faces major resistance from many Republicans who are wary that the divisive issue could derail what they see as a smooth glide path to winning November's congressional elections. And they deeply distrust the Democratic president to enforce the law.
Just hours after Boehner pitched immigration to the GOP at a Maryland retreat, Obama suddenly indicated he would be open to legal status for many of the 11 million living here illegally, dropping his once-ironclad insistence on a special path to citizenship.
Democrats, including Obama, and other immigration proponents have warned repeatedly about the creation of a two-tier class system.
"If the speaker proposes something that says right away, folks aren't being deported, families aren't being separated, we're able to attract top young students to provide the skills or start businesses here, and then there's a regular process of citizenship, I'm not sure how wide the divide ends up being," Obama said in a CNN interview that was recorded Thursday and aired Friday.
Obama's flexibility is a clear indication of the president's desire to secure an elusive legislative achievement before voters decide whether to hand him even more opposition in Congress. Republicans are expected to maintain their grip on the House and have a reasonable shot at grabbing the majority in the Senate.
"I'm going to do everything I can in the coming months to see if we can get this over the finish line," Obama said Friday of an immigration overhaul in a Google Plus Hangout talk.
In an earlier compromise, Obama signaled late last year that he could accept the House's piecemeal, bill-by-bill approach to immigration changes after months of backing a comprehensive, bipartisan Senate bill. Notably, he calibrated his comments on immigration in his State of the Union address this week.
"I think he realizes that this is a very delicate issue, it's very controversial and I think his recent statements have been very, very positive in allowing us to move forward," Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., a proponent of immigration overhaul, told reporters Friday.
Boehner, for his part, tried to sell his reluctant broader caucus on tackling immigration this year by casting it as critical to job creation, economic growth and national security. The speaker, along with Reps. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Jeff Denham, R-Calif., argued for action in a closed-door session with other House Republicans Thursday at their annual retreat in Cambridge, Md.
Boehner rejected the idea of a special path to citizenship.
"If Democrats insist on that, then we are not going to get anywhere this year," he said.
The House leaders' "standards for immigration reform" call for increased border security, better law enforcement within the U.S., a pathway to legal status but not citizenship for millions of adults who live in America unlawfully – after they pay back taxes and fines – and a chance for legal residence and citizenship for children brought to the country illegally.
But several Republicans questioned the strategy of pushing a contentious issue that divides the caucus and angers conservative GOP voters – especially since the party has been capitalizing on Obama's abysmal approval ratings and on Democrats' troubles in defending the national health care overhaul.
Any doubts about the Republicans' election-year prospects were erased with news this week of the planned retirement of Rep. Henry Waxman, a 20-term lawmaker who would have become chairman of a House committee if Democrats could win back the chamber.
"Why in the world would we want to change the subject to comprehensive immigration reform," said Rep. John Fleming, R-La., who called it a "suicide mission" for the GOP.
Aside from election hopes and concerns, some of the deep-seated opposition on immigration stems from Obama's willingness in the past year to waive or suspend parts of his health care law and his pronouncement in his State of the Union speech that he would bypass Congress on some issues.
"There is a trust gap that is a major obstacle," Diaz-Balart said.
Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican and a tea party favorite, said narrowly focused changes in immigration policy could come this year because Republicans and Democrats agree on some issues. While attending a fundraiser Friday in Hot Springs, Ark., he said he continues to support giving visas to those already in the U.S. if lawmakers determine annually that the border had become more secure than it had been the previous year.
Asked by The Associated Press if Obama's comments show any kind of hope for immigration reform, Paul said: "I think it's a good sign that he's saying that. It's a good sign that we're still talking. And I personally have told him, yeah, I think we could come to a deal that could move several things forward. Even some tax changes could move forward, but they need to be narrowly focused."
The business community, advocacy groups and other proponents are optimistic about House action this year, with many in the GOP arguing that it was imperative to eliminate a major political drag on the party ahead of the next presidential election.
A White House official said the details of a legalization plan would be crucial and administration support could hinge on whether those given legal status would have the option to eventually become citizens. Still, the official said the White House was buoyed by Republican progress on the issue and will be watching to see if the GOP might be willing to move closer to the president on citizenship and other aspects of the legislation.
Administration and congressional officials have suggested that Republicans could put legislation on the House floor in late March or early April.
The House principles set out by Boehner say "there will be no special path to citizenship for individuals who broke our nation's immigration laws – that would be unfair to those immigrants who have played by the rules and harmful to promoting the rule of law."
Still that wouldn't preclude millions from trying to obtain permanent legal residence, often known as a green card, through sponsorship by an employer or adult child. Those individuals they could later seek citizenship.
The House principles "say no special pathway. It doesn't say no pathway," Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., told reporters.
While strong majorities of Hispanics continue to back a pathway to citizenship, a Pew Research Center poll in December found that being able to live and work in the U.S. legally without the threat of deportation was more important to Latinos, by 55 percent to 35 percent.
Associated Press writers Julie Pace in Washington, David Espo in Cambridge, Md., and Andrew DeMillo in Hot Springs, Ark., contributed to this report.