CAMBRIDGE, Md. – House Republicans wrestled inconclusively with the outlines of immigration legislation Thursday night, sharply divided over the contentious issue itself and the political wisdom of acting on it in an election year.
At a three-day retreat on the frozen banks of the Choptank River on Maryland's Eastern Shore, GOP leaders circulated an outline that would guide the drafting of any House Republican legislation on the subject – a document that Speaker John Boehner told the rank and file was as far as the party was willing to go.
It includes a proposed pathway to legal status for millions of adults who live in the U.S. unlawfully – after they pay back taxes and fines – but not the special route to citizenship that President Barack Obama and many Democrats favor.
Many younger Americans brought to the country illegally by their parents would be eligible for citizenship.
"For those who meet certain eligibility standards, and serve honorably in our military or attain a college degrees, we will do just that," the statement said.
The principles also include steps to increase security at the nation's borders and workplaces, declaring those a prerequisite for any of the other changes.
Many conservatives reacted negatively during the closed-door session in which rank and file debated the issue, in part on political grounds and in part out of opposition to granting legal status to immigrants in the country illegally.
"This is really a suicide mission for the Republican Party," Rep. John Fleming, R-La., said. "While we're winning in the polls, while 'Obamacare' is really dismantling, big government concepts of Democrats and Obama disintegrating, why in the world do we want to go out and change the subject and revive the patient?"
Underscoring the complex political situation, some Democrats reacted hopefully to the principles, even though the proposal for legal status falls short of the full citizenship that was included in a bipartisan measure that cleared the Senate last year with the support of Obama.
The White House issued a statement that said it welcomed "the process moving forward in the House, and we look forward to working with all parties to make immigration reform a reality."
Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the leader of House Democrats, said she hoped it was possible to find common ground. Yet she added that the Republican principles "raise more questions than answers," including on the sensitive issue of citizenship.
The entire subject remains intensely controversial, particularly among conservatives in both houses of Congress.
Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., who heads the Republican Study Conference, a group of conservative lawmakers, repeatedly declined to say on Thursday whether there were any circumstances under which he would be able to support legislation that bestowed legal status on adults currently living in the country illegally.
Another Republican, Rep. Jason Smith of Missouri, told reporters that his constituents "definitely have big concerns about legalization."
The drive to overhaul immigration laws flagged after the Senate acted, as House conservatives dug in. The House Judiciary Committee has approved four bills, but none has reached the House floor as conservatives have expressed concern about being drawn into an eventual compromise with the White House.
One of those bills would toughen enforcement of immigration laws, including a provision that would permit local police officers to enforce them as part of an attempt to raise the number of deportations. It also would encourage immigrants in the United States illegally to depart voluntarily, an echo of Mitt Romney's call for "self-deportation" in the 2012 presidential race.
Other measures would create a new system for requiring employees to verify the legal status of their workers, establish a new temporary program for farm workers and expand the number of visas for employees in technology industries.
The political drive for immigration legislation among Republicans stems from the party's abysmal showing in recent elections among Hispanic voters.
Yet many conservative House members are from congressional districts with relatively few Hispanic residents, and they have more to fear politically from a challenge from the right. Additionally, current polls suggest Republicans are well-positioned to retain control of the House and perhaps gain a Senate majority as well, so some strategists see even less reason for compromise on the issue than before.
As the House Republicans gathered, a prominent opponent of the Senate bill, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala, circulated a detailed point-by-point rebuttal to the proposal that Boehner and the leadership have prepared.
Congress "must end lawlessness, not surrender to it," he said.
Boehner is moving carefully after failing a year ago to persuade the Republican rank and file to support an overhaul.
"It's time to deal with it, but how you deal with it is critically important," he said at a news conference Thursday.
It's one thing to pass a law, it's another thing to have the confidence of the American people behind the law, he said.
Fleming said Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., the party's vice presidential nominee in 2012, and California Rep. Jeff Denham spoke in favor of acting this year, but a number of Republicans questioned the timing, and several had serious reservations about the principles.
Numerous Republicans told reporters they wanted the party to be seen as offering alternatives to Obama this year rather than simply opposing him.
Aside from the immigration question, several said they favor drafting health care legislation for floor debate. Republicans campaigned as vigorous opponents of "Obamacare" when they won power in 2010, vowing to "repeal and replace" the law.
Three years later, they have voted more than 40 times to repeal or eviscerate the law, and they triggered a partial government shutdown last year in a failed attempt to defund it. But they have yet to produce an alternative, and some strategists argue the law is so unpopular that it would be a mistake to do so.