Boehner: Unclear if path to citizenship can be approved by House

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Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) on Thursday said “a vast majority” of House Republicans want to deal with immigration reform but, it wasn’t clear if legislation that includes a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants could pass the House.

Boehner spoke at a press conference a day after he convened a special conference meeting to discuss the party’s approach to President Obama’s top domestic priority.

The pivotal question for the conservative House GOP is whether a majority of its members could back eventual citizenship for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants — a central demand of Obama and congressional Democrats.

“Well, we’re going to find out,” Boehner said. “But it’s clear from the conversation yesterday that members do believe, that a vast majority of our members, do believe that we need to wrestle with this problem.

“They also believe that we need to do this step-by-step, common-sense approach,” he added. “Thirdly, I would add it’s clear that securing our borders and having the ability to enforce our immigration laws are the first big step in this process.”

The Speaker spent much of the press conference defending his decision to advance immigration bills individually, rather than as one comprehensive proposal like the plan the Senate passed last month.

“I do believe that these big comprehensive bills tend to cause all kinds of problems,” Boehner said. “Members haven’t read the bills, and that’s why you’ve heard me talk about a step-by-step approach on a number of issues that we deal with around here. And I think when it comes to immigration reform, moving through this in a methodical, step-by-step approach allows members to read the bills, understand the bills and frankly, allows the American people to have greater confidence that we have our arms around what we’re doing.”

The Speaker would not put a timetable or deadline on House action, and it’s increasingly likely that the debate over immigration will extend well into the fall. The Judiciary and Homeland Security committees have approved five individual immigration bills, but the GOP leadership has not announced plans to bring them to the floor. None of the proposals address the status of the 11 million illegal immigrants.

“We’ve got a broken system that needs to be fixed, and I made a strong case yesterday that it needs to be fixed and Republicans ought to be a part of the solution,” Boehner said. But in a message aimed at Democratic leaders, he added later: “It’s going to take some bipartisan cooperation in order to move this process along.”

Democratic leaders oppose the bills that have come out of the Judiciary Committee, but they have not ruled out helping Republicans pass piecemeal reforms through the House to get to a conference committee with the Senate.

Boehner spoke as two authors of the Senate immigration bill, Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), met with President Obama at the White House.

They emerged saying they would not try to “bigfoot” the House into passing the Senate bill, which Boehner has ruled out.

“We are ready to negotiate,” McCain said. “We are ready to talk. We are ready to sit down with you.”

McCain and Schumer — two of the eight authors of the Senate’s immigration bill, said they felt better about immigration reform’s prospects in Washington given calls at the House GOP conference meeting on Wednesday by Boehner and Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) for the House to move forward.

“If I had to choose a word to describe yesterday's House meeting, it would be encouraging,” Schumer said. “Immigration reform has a strong future here in Washington.”

The tone from Schumer was a shift from earlier in the week, when he warned that negotiations would be fruitless unless the House could pass a path to citizenship on its own.

— Justin Sink contributed to this story.