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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Let's turn away, for the moment, from talk of the fiscal cliff and how to avoid it; to a very different - but also very big - legislative issue, immigration reform. It's expected to be a top priority for the White House in 2013, and not just for the White House, as NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: After an election in which Hispanics voted overwhelmingly for the president, Mr. Obama and Republicans on the Hill are making overtures about immigration reform. House Speaker John Boehner says he's sure he can make a deal next year with the White House, on a comprehensive bill. A steady procession of prominent GOP leaders are warning that Republicans won't win the White House again without improving their outreach to Latino voters. On Monday, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio explained the problem this way.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO: It's really hard to get people to listen to you on economic growth, on tax rates, on health care, if they think you want to deport their grandmother. I mean, it's very difficult to get people to listen to anything else you're saying. So I think it's critical. I mean, there's just common sense involved here, in terms of how you portray it. Policy matters, too, but rhetoric is important.

LIASSON: A comprehensive immigration bill would tackle three problems: border security and workplace enforcement, a revamp of the legal immigration system, and the thorniest issue of all - what to do with the 11 million people already here illegally. In a warm-up, of sorts, yesterday in Washington, two retiring Republican senators - Kay Bailey Hutchison, of Texas; and Jon Kyl, of Arizona - took a stab at a tiny piece of immigration reform.

SEN. JON KYL: We have to get this ball rolling. We have to have a discussion that is sensible, that is calm, that discusses all of the different aspects of the issue. And this particular part of immigration reform seemed a logical place to begin.

LIASSON: This particular part of immigration reform is Kyl and Hutchison's version of the DREAM Act. It would allow young, illegal immigrants to stay in this country legally if they enrolled in college, or joined the military. But it would not offer them a path to citizenship. And that might describe, in general terms, where Republicans decide to plant their flag on immigration. The old debate was amnesty versus deportation. That debate is now dead; its funeral was Election Night. The new debate has a new dividing line: legalization versus citizenship.

JOHN FEEHERY: I think it's exactly right.

LIASSON: Republican John Feehery is a former top House leadership aide.

FEEHERY: The Republicans have to tread carefully on this, you know, unless they do a very impressive outreach to the Hispanic community. Right now, the more people you give citizenship, the more people you have voting against you. Certainly, the last election proved that. This is a concern of many on the right. They're saying, why would you give citizenship to a bunch of people who are going to vote against you?

LIASSON: And that's why, despite a consensus among national Republican leaders that electoral math dictates the party change its position on immigration reform, the rank-and-file - particularly members with safe Republican House districts - worry more about fending off anti-immigrant primary challengers. John Feehery:

FEEHERY: I'm not sure if things have changed. So this is not going to be a no-brainer for John Boehner. There are a lot of people who are still very much worried about illegal immigration flowing in; they're very much worried about amnesty. And so this is going to take a real educational effort, to let people understand that there's a policy imperative here. There's also a political imperative. And it's also going to require, I think, outreach by the business community, but also by religious leaders; to let these folks know, you know - the most conservative folks know that by being so anti-immigrant, it's just not the right thing to do.

LIASSON: That outreach is gearing up. Next week, a coalition of conservative business, faith and law enforcement leaders will meet in Washington, to build momentum for immigration reform. The debate won't start in earnest till next year. But in the meantime, both sides are laying out their bottom lines. Legalization short of citizenship might end up being the Republicans'. Today, on Capitol Hill, the congressional Hispanic caucus will lay out their principles. And for them, a path to citizenship is non-negotiable.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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