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Dim prospects for comprehensive immigration bill in House

Two weeks after the Senate passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill with bipartisan support, the House Republican Conference on Wednesday confirmed their decision to take a different path and tackle immigration reform with multiple, piecemeal bills. Those standalone bills, however, may not even get to the House floor until September.

The slow pace of immigration reform in the House underscores the challenges facing House Republicans: In addition to considering the different priorities of their members, they must balance their short-term political interest in pleasing a conservative base with their long-term interest in fostering a political relationship with Latino voters.

For now, House Republicans are, at the very least, making clear that they will not accept the Senate bill. Following an hours-long meeting with their entire caucus, House GOP leaders released a statement calling the Senate bill "flawed" and "rushed," even though the "gang of eight" bipartisan senators worked for months on the effort. They likened a comprehensive immigration bill to the Affordable Care Act -- the lowest blow possible, from the perspective of a conservative.

"The American people want our border secured, our laws enforced, and the problems in our immigration system fixed to strengthen our economy," the statement said. "But they don't trust a Democratic-controlled Washington, and they're alarmed by the president's ongoing insistence on enacting a single, massive, Obamacare-like bill rather than pursuing a step-by-step, common-sense approach to actually fix the problem."

Referencing the fact that the Obama administration has delayed parts of the health care law, Republican leaders said the administration "cannot be trusted to deliver on its promises to secure the border and enforce laws as part of a single, massive bill like the one passed by the Senate."

The statement made no mention of creating a pathway to citizenship for the nation's 11 million undocumented immigrants -- a sticking point for both President Obama and congressional Democrats.

McCaul: GOP "can't just do nothing" on immigration reform

Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee, said after Wednesday's meeting that his border security legislation would likely be the first bill to hit the House floor -- probably in September.

House Republicans, McCaul said, would be more likely to compromise on a pathway to citizenship (or at least legal status) once they felt assured that border security would be a priority and a prerequisite. He said he thought "the meeting could not have gone better" and that he believes, based on the closed-door meeting, that most House Republicans truly do want to tackle immigration reform.

McCaul and other members coming out of the meeting all acknowledged that House Republicans remain deeply divided over a path to citizenship or legal status. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, a staunch opponent to the idea, said the party seemed to be split "50/50."

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., said Congress must strengthen the borders. While doing that, she said, "I hope that we can also look at the 11 million who want to legalize their status and contribute in a great way to this country."

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said "some people will clearly stay." He added, however, that the House GOP is also considering "those who should not remain and those who would fall within guest workers or other programs."

While Republicans are putting an emphasis on border security, several key House Democrats have kept mum on whether they could support the robust security elements that were included in the Senate bill.

Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., who represents a district that includes the U.S.-Mexico border, said in a Wednesday news conference with other border-state Democrats that the security provisions in the Senate bill are "excessive and overkill."

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That said, he added, "We have a difficult situation here in the House," suggesting he could accept strong security provisions if that's what it took to get a bill through the lower chamber.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Wednesday that the Senate bill "gives leverage to those who want a bill in the House."

Republicans in the Senate had an "epiphany" on immigration reform after Mr. Obama won 71 percent of the Latino vote in 2012, Pelosi said.

"If you want to win statewide, you need to make as many friends as possible," she said. Of course, House Republicans don't need to win statewide elections. Still, she pointed out, they should be interested in electing a Republican president.

Grijalva added, "Is there a short term political advantage [for Republicans] by doing nothing? ... Probably. In the long term, absolutely it's a loss. So that's their struggle."

As they engage in that struggle, the former leader of the Republican party, former President George W. Bush, is gently pushing the GOP to get something done. On Wednesday, the former president said he hopes there is a "positive resolution" to the immigration debate. He urged lawmakers to "keep a benevolent spirit in mind, and... understand the contributions immigrants make to our country."

The White House, meanwhile, has kept up its own efforts to encourage immigration reform, releasing a report on Wednesday outlining the economic benefits. Mr. Obama also discussed immigration reform with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus on Wednesday. After the meeting, Caucus Chairman Rep. Rubén Hinojosa, D-Texas, said in a statement, "There is no daylight between the CHC and the Administration on this issue."

"The President made clear passage of a comprehensive immigration reform bill is a priority of his Administration and that he will continue to work with Democrats and Republicans to find common ground," he said.