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House GOP listens as Republican senators talk immigration

As Congress continues work on immigration reform, conservative House Republicans plan to meet with a group of select senators Wednesday to talk all sides of the issue.

Special guests at the House-side meeting will include Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.; Mike Lee, R-Utah; Jeff Flake. R-Ariz.; Rand Paul, R-Ky.; and Jeff Sessions, R-Ala. That group includes two senators who helped author the Senate's comprehensive "Gang of 8" proposal, which includes a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, two who oppose the legislation and one, Rand Paul, who is staying mysterious as to whether he will support the bill or not.

It makes sense that House members would be curious to hear from these lawmakers. The Senate has made rapid progress over the past two months towards passing an immigration that reforms the nation's visa system, increases security and surveillance at the border and creates a path to legalization and eventual citizenship for the 11 million illegal immigrants currently in the United States.

That bill is expected on the Senate floor next week and could be finished as early as the July 4th recess, though it could still undergo massive changes.

Meanwhile, prospects of passing any package in the House remain unclear.

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One thing House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has made clear: he won't just bring the Senate bill to the House floor and give it an up or down vote.

Conventional wisdom post-2012 election is that Republicans must pass an immigration bill to win over the Hispanic vote that they are so clearly losing based on last year's election results.

It may be true that passing a large immigration bill could benefit Republican senators politically since they represent entire states with diverse geography, populations and workforce needs. But it's not necessarily as advantageous for House Republicans who constantly look over their shoulder in fear of a primary opponent more conservative than they are and represent far less diverse districts.

Boehner has to walk the fine line of trying to pass some kind of reform, in order to not look like House Republicans killed immigration reform, while not causing a riot among his already-divided GOP conference.

That leaves two options for consideration in the House.

The first is dependent on what's known in the House as the "group of 8," which is made up of four Democrats and four Republicans who have been hoping to get a final deal on a package for months. Originally, they hoped to introduce their bill before the Senate introduces its bill, but they have been mired by snags and last-minute issues that threatened to break up the group.

"I think people underestimated how difficult it would be in the House, but the important thing is that the process is moving forward" said one aide with knowledge of discussions.

The group met Tuesday in an attempt to clear the latest hurdle, disagreement over whether illegal immigrants should be required to carry health insurance or be deported - an idea Democrats called unworkable and hypocritical given the GOP's opposition to individual health care mandates for the rest of the American public.

The group continues meeting this week to find a realistic compromise on health care and ideally tie up final loose ends.

The most optimistic possible unveiling date for the package in the House is late next week according to aides of lawmakers in the group. However, there are numerous hurdles between now and the potential unveiling.

There are all the messy details that come up as ideas agreed to in a conference room are actually drafted into legislative language - unintended consequences revealed, disagreements over whether the legalese truly reflects what each negotiator intended and objections raised from colleagues as details leak out.

The most challenging hurdle represents what lawmakers want most from both leaders Boehner and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.: their blessing.

That should be easier for Democrats who are more friendly to the legislation in general. Plus, Pelosi has been involved along the way, both as a cheerleader and meeting with members as well as stepping in when she saw red flags like the health care issue.

One senior GOP staffer involved in talks cracked that it seems like the Democrats have to check with Pelosi on "every period and every comma." He said that her involvement, especially over the health care issue, have really slowed talks down. But Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill says she has been no more involved than Boehner who has also met with the GOP members in the group.

One Democratic aide close to the talks said ultimately, it comes down to Boehner. "Republicans run the show so they are going to have to decide where it goes."

So far, Boehner has stayed out of the nitty gritty details according to members. He's told his fellow Republicans to bring him a bill and do it quickly. He's made clear publicly that a blessing is not a sure thing. One aide to the House Speaker says he will absolutely need to see the package and talk to members before granting it. It won't be automatic.

If Boehner does not embrace the bill, the second possible path for immigration reform in the House looks most likely.

That path goes through the House Judiciary Committee where former immigration lawyer and conservative GOP member Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., wields the gavel.

The Judiciary Committee has primary jurisdiction over immigration, though Homeland Security has a slice with the border security provisions.

As the "Group of 8" has met behind closed doors, Goodlatte has been introducing targeted immigration bills steadily - three in all that focus on immigration reforms House Republicans can largely agree on.

One, reforms and expands a visa program for high skilled immigrants, another does the same for agricultural workers and the last expands the e-verify program to require and make it easier for employers to check potential employee's legal status. Goodlatte's fellow chairman at the Homeland Security Committee, Rep. Mike McCaul, R-Texas, introduced a bill as well just focused on increasing the number of border patrol agents at the southern border and providing more funding for surveillance.

GOP leaders could decide to move forward with these bills, none of which deal with the 11 million illegal immigrants currently living in the United States, and then go to conference with the Senate to work out differences between the bills.

This could be the least perilous path. If the Senate's language providing a path to citizenship remains in the end, then the House will only have to vote on that once. Or, House Republicans could succeed at striking that language in the final agreement.

The one thing that remains clear, is that while there are prominent voices on both sides of the aisle calling for immigration reform to pass this year, it is by no means a sure thing.

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