WASHINGTON -- Meeting for the first time as a group to hash out their approach to immigration, House Republicans on Wednesday came down overwhelmingly against a comprehensive overhaul of the nation's immigration laws, putting in jeopardy the future of sweeping legislation that includes a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
Despite the resistance, Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, warned his balking troops about the steep price of inaction, telling them that they would be in a weaker political position against a bipartisan Senate coalition and President Barack Obama if they did nothing to answer the immigration measure the Senate passed last month.
House Republicans huddled in a crucial 21/2-hour session in the Capitol basement as their leaders tried to devise some response to the demand for immigration legislation, especially the Senate provision that would grant a path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants already in the country. The bill also mandates tough border security provisions that must be in place before immigrants can gain legal status.
The bottom line was clear: The GOP-controlled House does not plan to take up anything resembling the Senate bill, which many of them believe is bad policy and smacks of an amnesty strongly opposed by the conservative community that holds significant sway over the rank-and-file.
They also do not intend to move quickly, and some Republicans are wary of passing any measure that could lead to negotiations with the Senate, talks that could add pressure on the House to consider a broader plan.
The Republicans met just hours after Republican former President George W. Bush added his voice to the immigration debate at a naturalization ceremony in his new presidential center near Dallas. His speech reminded Republicans that he had long believed it necessary to overhaul the system in a way much like the Senate bill outlined.
"The laws governing the immigration system aren't working," Mr. Bush said. "The system is broken. We're now in an important debate in reforming those laws. And that's good." He said he did not intend "to get involved in the politics or the specifics of policy. But I do hope there is a positive resolution to the debate, and I hope during the debate that we keep a benevolent spirit in mind, and we understand the contributions that immigrants make to our country."
House GOP leaders struck a defiant tone after the meeting, issuing a joint statement declaring that the Obama administration "cannot be trusted to deliver on its promises to secure the border and enforce laws as part of a single, massive bill like the one passed by the Senate."
Mr. Boehner repeatedly reassured fellow Republicans that he would pass nothing through the House that did not have the support of a majority of his party, and lawmakers left the meeting certain that nothing significant would happen in their chamber until September, and possibly much later.
" 'Comprehensive' has always been a swear word in the House of Representatives, but having a step-by-step approach that deals with the issue comprehensively, I don't think that's dead," said Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, a Hispanic legislator who, until recently, had been part of a bipartisan House group working on a broad immigration proposal.
Instead, House Republicans will consider a piecemeal approach, passing several individual bills rather than one large package, as the Senate did. Any immigration proposal, members said, is likely to concentrate on border security and enforcement; a path to legalization or citizenship, they stressed, must come later -- if at all.
Although they may pass one or two modest bills before the August recess, many members said they felt no particular urgency to deal with an immigration overhaul, with autumn likely to be dominated by budget and federal debt ceiling fights.
House Republicans find themselves in a difficult spot on immigration, caught between needs of the national party and gerrymandered, largely safe conservative districts. Many returned to Congress this week after hearing from district constituents who do not trust the federal government to implement an immigration law overhaul, as well as mounting evidence that conservative opinion is starting to harden against a broad immigration push.
House Republicans largely believe that concerns of their national party elite are overblown, and that their political future and 2016 prospects do not hinge on successfully passing an immigration bill this year.
"Is this is an issue that people care about? Yes. Is it one that keeps them up at night? Probably not," said Pennsylvania's Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Allentown, who is among moderates who could be part of a compromise.
Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, a respected party voice who has been working behind the scenes to help push an immigration overhaul, spoke at the meeting in favor of immigration generally. He said fixing the broken U.S. system was good for economic growth and national security.
Emotions ran high, with members lining up 10 deep at each of two microphones, waiting to speak their piece. Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., read an obscure line from "America the Beautiful" to make his point that respect for the rule of law must be inviolable: "Confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law," he intoned.
Participants portrayed a GOP conference still divided over the question of citizenship -- although some said they were open to a path to citizenship, or at least legal status, others said they worried about even going to negotiations with the Senate, where they fear any bill to emerge would constitute amnesty.
Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, took up the lead for stalwart foes of legislation that might produce what they view as amnesty. "You can't separate the Dream Act kids from those who came across the border with a pack of contraband on their back, and they can't tell me how they can do that," he said, referring to undocumented immigrants known as "Dreamers," brought here by their parents as young children. "Once you start down that line, you're destroying the rule of law."
But the response to his pitch was not as robust as in the past: "It was not a standing ovation," he conceded. In fact, the one area where legislators showed signs of some consensus was around the "Dreamers," who many agreed should not be punished for their parents' mistakes.
Hours before the meeting, hundreds of young immigrants who had grown up in the country without legal papers held a mock citizenship ceremony on a Senate lawn. "We have come today to claim our citizenship," said Lorella Praeli, a leader of United We Dream. But she insisted that young immigrants would not agree to any plan that included only them, and not all undocumented immigrants. "2013 is not the time for separate but equal."