Jeb Bush gives pep talk to House GOP on immigration

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) trod carefully in discussing the more controversial parts of immigration reform on Thursday, refusing to weigh in on the fight over border security in the Senate after giving a closed-door pep talk to House Republicans. [WATCH VIDEO]

Speaking at the Bipartisan Policy Center alongside former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R), Bush argued passionately for a major immigration reform overhaul and said he’d made a similar case to House Republicans Thursday morning at the behest of House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).

But Bush declined to say what he thought of an amendment from Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) focused on increasing the Senate bill’s border security benchmarks, and downplayed his previous opposition to giving illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship, saying only that he supports the plan outlined in the Senate.

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Bush, who is considered a possible presidential contender in 2016, is in a delicate position. He championed immigration reform long before many other Republicans, and doesn’t want to undercut ongoing congressional deliberations — or appear to be at odds with his one-time protégé, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who helped craft the Senate bill.

Bush said the "humble advice" he gave to undecided House Republicans Thursday morning was to "change the conversation to 'how do we restore our greatness as a nation by sustained economic growth,'" emphasizing fixing the legal immigration system rather than what to do with illegal immigrants to rejuvenate the aging American population.

"That is a winning message in conservative America, for sure," he said.

He later said that he thinks the "House will respond" if the Senate passes a bill, which he said looked "likely."

In a book released earlier this year, Bush laid out a specific blueprint for immigration reform that doesn’t perfectly align with the changes being pushed in Congress.

“I’m not going to comment on the sausage. It’s a work in progress,” said Bush when asked about Cornyn’s amendment, which some Democrats have described as a “poison pill” that would sink the legislation. Republicans say the border security language in the Senate bill must be strengthened before the bill can pass.

“It’s encouraging that sausage is being made rather than talked about,” Bush said. “Our democracy doesn’t work when we're just chirping on the sidelines. It works when people are engaged in good faith to try and find consensus.”

He also was cautious when discussing whether illegal immigrants should get a pathway to citizenship, downplaying the statement in his book that “that those who violated the laws can remain but cannot obtain the cherished fruits of citizenship.”

Those remarks caused controversy when the book came out in March, and the governor quickly walked them back. He sought to avoid reigniting that controversy on Thursday by disputing that the views expressed in his book contradict what’s in the Senate bill.

“If we end up with a law that takes 13 years [for citizenship] … I think that satisfies the concerns of having the right balance between respect for the rule of law and embracing our immigrant heritage,” he said.

Bush praised the ongoing negotiations, saying the process “validates the civics books,” and singled out Rubio for praise.

“I applaud Marco Rubio’s work on this,” he said. “I trust him to reach that proper balance, and I hope that Democrats will stay with this, and that we will pass a law.”

Bush told reporters after the event he would continue to advocate for the bill on Friday when he attends a gathering of religious conservatives hosted by Ralph Reed’s Faith & Freedom Coalition. Also scheduled to appear: Cornyn, as well as Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), a leading opponent of the Senate bill.

This post was updated at 2:10 p.m.