House Republicans confronting the politically volatile issue of immigration are wrestling with what to do about those already here illegally, with most Republicans reluctant to endorse citizenship for 11 million unauthorized immigrants but also shying away from suggestions of deportation.
As the House GOP prepares to meet Wednesday afternoon to debate the way forward on immigration, many lawmakers seem to be gravitating toward offering legal status of some kind for millions here illegally. But exactly what and how are far from clear.
For some, a guest worker status would be as far as it goes, while others are leaving open the possibility that once they're in the country legally, immigrants eventually could attain citizenship through existing channels of family or employer sponsorship. Still others are focused on citizenship for people brought to the country as youths, military veterans and perhaps others who've lived in the country for years and proven their contributions to society.
But with Democrats demanding nothing less than a straight forward if lengthy path to citizenship, like the provision in the Senate-passed immigration bill, it's questionable whether a compromise could get to President Barack Obama's desk.
"I do think there's a will to act. But the margin isn't huge in the House on the GOP side," said Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., who chairs the House Judiciary immigration subcommittee. Without Democratic support, "it's a very small number you can lose."
Republicans control 234 House seats and Democrats 201. Passing legislation requires a majority vote of 218 if all members are voting.
The immigration bill passed last month by the Democratic-controlled Senate, with the backing of the White House, would spend $46 billion on border security, create new legal avenues for workers to come to the country, require employers to verify their workers' legal status and offer eventual citizenship for those here illegally.
After months of delicate closed-door negotiations, the legislation passed on a bipartisan 68-32 vote. The calculus in the Republican-controlled House is more complex and daunting.
Many of the conservatives who wield power in the House are in districts with few Hispanic voters and are thus insulated from much of the pressure to act on immigration. Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, already has rejected the idea of bringing the Senate bill to the House floor, and he's pledged that no legislation will move without the support of a majority of his Republicans.
Like many in his conference, Boehner has said border security must come first. And many Republicans prefer a piecemeal, step-by-step approach, rather than a single big bill like the one the Senate passed.