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Republicans prepare for major immigration meeting Thursday

Republican leaders are bringing together the entire GOP conference Thursday morning to spend several hours hashing out a topic that has divided members in recent weeks: immigration.

Just over a dozen Republicans met Wednesday afternoon in Speaker Paul Ryan's office to prepare for the meeting, which became a necessity after a group of moderate Republicans launched a procedural maneuver to force a vote on four separate immigration bills. The conservative flank of the GOP, meanwhile, is demanding their own vote on a more conservative measure – and refuse to have it paired with votes for anything else.

The members who gathered in Ryan's office Wednesday represented the various groups vying for a say in immigration legislation: the GOP leadership, the conservative Freedom Caucus members and Republican Study Committee, and moderates behind the procedural effort to force a vote with a discharge petition. On Thursday, the entire conference will meet to discuss immigration for two to three hours at 9 a.m.

"I feel good about the conversations that we are having. Our members are earnest and sincere and trying to understand each other's perspectives. We have a big swath of views within our conference on this issue," Ryan told reporters Wednesday morning. "And I really do believe that that is a sweet spot here."

Most members left the meeting calling the discussions productive but refusing to provide any further details about what exactly is on the table and what might be in a bill that could go to the floor.

"There's many ways that we can do this and we've worked on this before so there's things we can do to agree on those things and that's why it's better not to negotiate with you guys, but best amongst ourselves," said Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, one of the members who attended the meeting and a co-author of the conservative immigration bill written by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Virginia. "There are things that we can do, we can both agree to and that's what we're working towards."

Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows, R-North Carolina, said he did not believe the leadership would be presenting an entire legislative package tomorrow but rather a few "concepts."

"Hopefully those concepts will be something that we can debate over the few hours there and iron out some of the additional concerns." 

Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Florida, one of the moderate members who launched the discharge petition, said he and his colleagues will continue talks with leadership and other Republican members but will not give up on seeking signatures on the discharge petition in order to keep up the pressure to act.

Two more Democrats signed the discharge petition today, bringing the total number of signatories to 215 – just three shy of the 218 threshold they need to force a vote. Under House rules, the immigration bills could come to the floor for a vote as soon as Monday, June 25 as long as there are 218 signatures on the petition by the end of the day on Tuesday, June 12.

Just one Democrat, Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, has refused to sign the petition.

"I need a commitment from Democratic leadership saying that they will not support a border wall in exchange for Dreamers," he said in a statement. "The construction of a physical wall is an expensive and inefficient use of our taxpayers' hard-earned dollars. My support for Dreamers and a DACA fix has not wavered, but there are more cost-efficient ways of protecting our borders by increasing technology and employing additional border security personnel."

One of the toughest questions plaguing the GOP conference is what to do with the population of young people who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children and are now in the DACA program.

"For us, it's critical that these young immigrants have a bridge onto the legal immigration system. There are many different ways of designing that and we been having those discussions," Curbelo said.

Labrador and his other conservative partners insist there be no "special" pathway to citizenship that only applies to DACA recipients.

The bill he authored with Goodlatte and Reps. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, and Martha McSally, R-Arizona, would grant DACA recipients a 3-year renewable legal status that would allow them to work and travel overseas but requires them to only apply for green cards through existing legal avenues.

Meadows said, "We had good discussions on how you take a DACA population and make sure that they don't have to face deportation but also that ultimately how do they get a bridge into a legal immigration system."

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    Rebecca Kaplan covers the 2012 presidential campaign for CBS News and National Journal.