House GOP Airs Their Differences Over Immigration Bill

House Speaker John Boehner convened a closed-door meeting of his Republican caucus Wednesday to figure out how his chamber can deal with the immigration issue. The Senate has already passed an overhaul that many conservatives find unacceptable because it gives 11 million illegal immigrants a path to citizenship.

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The massive immigration bill passed in the Senate with bipartisan support is now facing a challenge in the House. The Republican speaker has served notice that he will not put any bill to a vote that doesn't have the support of a majority of Republicans. And yesterday, almost every House Republican crowded into a closed-door meeting in the basement of the Capitol to discuss the issue.

Immigration reform does divide the GOP, and as NPR's David Welna reports, it's an issue not likely be resolved anytime soon.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: It lasted more than an hour, and when it ended, House Republicans shared some of what went on during their party's closed-door huddle on immigration.

Utah's, Jason Chaffetz is on the Judiciary and Homeland Security committees, which have passed some small-bore immigration bills. Yesterday's meeting, he said, was simply a chance for members to sound off.

REPRESENTATIVE JASON CHAFFETZ: We had this wide array of the spectrum of people speaking today as you can possibly imagine. So it was good for leadership to have it out. It was more like a family get-together and people airing out perspectives. I mean, I think it was very healthy that way.

WELNA: Colorado's Doug Lamborn said on one point, a consensus did emerge.

REPRESENTATIVE DOUG LAMBORN: There's almost unanimous agreement that among the Republicans that the Senate bill is fatally flawed and is a nonstarter. It will go nowhere in the House.

WELNA: Indeed, House Speaker John Boehner issued a statement after the meeting, asserting the American people are alarmed by what he called, quote, "the president's ongoing insistence on enacting a single massive Obamacare-like bill." He said the House would instead pursue what he called a step-by-step, commonsense approach to fixing the immigration problem. But Boehner's fellow House Republicans do not appear to have all fallen in step on immigration.

REPRESENTATIVE STEVE KING: We have a disagreement inside here, and I hope that I made some people think.

WELNA: That's Iowa Republican Steve King, who strongly opposes any illegal status for some 11 million immigrants who are in the country unlawfully.

KING: I made the point that anything that is legalization ends up in citizenship, and if that's the case, I'm opposed to it, because it destroys the rule of law. You could never reestablish the rule of law in this country - at least with regard to immigration - again.

WELNA: But other Republicans, including Idaho's Raul Labrador, left the meeting predicting the House would pass legislation letting those unlawful immigrants remain in the country legally.

REPRESENTATIVE RAUL LABRADOR: I don't think a special pathway to citizenship is going to be, but I think some sort of legal status that doesn't prevent citizenship in the future is probably where we will end up.

WELNA: Labrador predicted it would be months - not weeks - before the House takes up a series immigration bills passed in committee.

Pressure is building from some GOP quarters for the House to act. Yesterday, former President George W. Bush weighed in at a naturalization ceremony he presided over in Dallas. He said he did not want to be involved in the politics of immigration debate...

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: But I do hope there is a policy resolution to the debate. And I hope during the debate, that we keep a benevolent spirit in mind, and we understand the contributions immigrants make to our country.

WELNA: And at an immigration rally outside the Capitol yesterday, Illinois House Democrat Luis Gutierrez said people are getting tired of waiting for Congress to act.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

REPRESENTATIVE LUIS GUTIERREZ: And we say to the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, let the people's will be heard. You know and I know that 218 votes exist for comprehensive immigration reform, and all we ask you is for five minutes on the floor of the House. Allow the vote to occur in justice and comprehensive immigration reform will come to the president's desk for his signing.

WELNA: That's not going to happen, says Oklahoma Republican Tom Cole. But he vows the House will act on immigration.

REPRESENTATIVE TOM COLE: Doing nothing is not an option. You know, I think we have a problem. It's a problem the American people believe is a really important problem. It's incumbent upon us, if we're in the majority, to produce something to do with that.

WELNA: Just not right now, Cole adds. Perhaps later this year.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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