A group of a half-dozen House members, equally divided between Democrats and Republicans, is nearing completion of wide-ranging immigration legislation similar to proposals by Senate negotiators and President Barack Obama, including a pathway to legal immigration status for 11 million illegal immigrants already in the U.S.
The group intends to unveil the legislation soon, perhaps around the time of Obama's State of the Union address Feb. 12, according to lawmakers and aides involved. It is likely to face strong resistance from many of the conservative Republicans who dominate the House.
Yet its mere existence is a sign of more interest in immigration legislation in the House than has been evident for some time. Group members and others say that, despite the discomfort of many House Republicans with any effort to adjust illegal immigrants' status, they see glimmers of hope for passage of some kind of immigration package during this session of Congress.
"I've felt a huge sea change, believe it or not, from both parties," said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., a member of the group. "There are some who will criticize anything no matter what it is as amnesty. There are even some who will label anything as amnesty without even reading a bill or seeing a bill. It's their right to do so. But I think the majority of Republicans and the majority of Democrats want to get something done, want to fix it."
The group has been meeting in secret off and on for years in various permutations, beginning around the time of the last serious effort on immigration in Congress in 2007, which failed in the Senate. They've drafted legislative language in the past but without ever introducing a bill. They've largely kept their efforts quiet in part to shield members from the likely political blowback from conservatives were their efforts to become public, an aide said.
Indeed, the loudest voices from House Republicans decry any efforts aimed at the legal status issue.
"We've been down this road before with politicians promising to enforce the law in return for amnesty. ... The American people should not be fooled," Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, said this week after Obama and a bipartisan Senate group released proposals promising stronger border controls, a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, smoother legal immigration and tougher enforcement against employers hiring illegal immigrants.
For many House Republicans, supporting immigration legislation that gives a pathway to citizenship carries substantial political risks, since it's a position that would have to be defended to conservative voters come election time. But polls show Americans increasingly supportive of the approach at the same time many GOP leaders believe that the party should confront the immigration issue or risk continued losses in national elections. Obama won an overwhelming majority of Latino and Asian voters in November, which helped seal his victory.
"The immigration issue, it's time to deal with it. I said it the day after the election, I meant it. We're going to have to deal with it," House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said last week while answering audience questions after a speech at the Ripon Society, a Republican public policy organization in Washington.
Boehner went on to mention the bipartisan working group, which until then was little known, adding he hadn't seen details. "My theory was if these folks could work this out, it would be a big step in the right direction, so I would think you're likely to hear a lot more on immigration reform on the House side soon," he said.
Democratic group members are Reps. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois and Zoe Lofgren and Xavier Becerra of California. The Republicans are Diaz-Balart and Sam Johnson and John Carter of Texas.
"I am optimistic that there are new voices in the Republican Party that want to get this done in the House of Representatives," Gutierrez said.
Other lawmakers have also been in touch with group members, including Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who has embraced proposals put forth by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., to offer a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants contingent on enacting strict border controls first.
"I personally believe we should have done this a long time ago. I really do believe it's doable this year," Ryan said in an interview this week with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorial board.
Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, said he was working to find a way to deal with illegal immigrants already in the country that would be acceptable to a majority of Republicans, such as allowing them a legal worker status without a special pathway to citizenship. "In the House you're going to have a hard time finding Republicans who can support a pathway to citizenship," Labrador said.
Ahead of the release of their bill, the group members are still trying to keep their efforts quiet and several declined to discuss their efforts or membership in detail. Aides said House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has been supportive, but regardless of what the group proposes, Boehner is not expected take any steps on immigration until legislation passes the Senate.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., a member of the Senate negotiating group on immigration who was a House member until his election in November, said he's been in touch with former colleagues in the House on the issue.
"There are some who aren't wild about doing any of this, but even those that aren't wild about it are ready to see this in the rearview mirror," he said.
The House Judiciary Committee is to begin hearings next week, and Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., said much work lies ahead before it will become clear what kind of immigration law changes the House might be able to support.
"I feel confident the House will pass immigration reform legislation, but whether it's individual pieces or something that fits together in a more comprehensive whole" remains to be seen, Goodlatte said Wednesday.