WASHINGTON – Divided on immigration, House Republicans challenged President Barack Obamas willingness to secure the nations borders on Wednesday and appeared unimpressed by George W. Bushs advice to carry a benevolent spirit into a debate that includes a possible path to citizenship for millions.
Emerging from a closed-door meeting, GOP leaders affirmed a step-by-step approach to immigration but offered neither specifics nor a timetable – nor any mention of possible citizenship for an estimated 11 million immigrants living in the country unlawfully.
Instead, in a statement noting that the White House recently delayed a key part of the health care law, Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and other leaders said the action raised concerns that the 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.
Lawmakers streaming out of the two-hour meeting said Bushs long-distance advice had not come up in a discussion that focused instead on the importance of securing the nations borders and a general distrust of Obama.
The former presidents ability to sway a new generation of House conservatives was a matter of considerable doubt, especially because many of the tea party-backed lawmakers have risen to power since he left the White House and are strongly on record in opposition to any citizenship provision.
We care what people back home say, not what some former president says, declared Rep. Tim Huelskamp, a second-term Kansas Republican who has clashed with the party leadership in the House.
Still, the timing and substance of Bushs remarks were reminders of the imperative that many national party leaders feel that Republicans must broaden their appeal among Hispanics to compete successfully in future presidential elections.
America can be a lawful society and a welcoming society at the same time, Bush said at a naturalization ceremony at his presidential library in Dallas.
For their part, Democrats quickly embraced the former presidents message, challenging Boehner to proceed in the same spirit.
At the Capitol, Republican aides said a closed-door meeting of the rank and file was designed as a listening session, rather than a forum for deciding how the House will proceed. The eventual strategy will be up to the leadership, Boehner and others, to decide in the coming days.
Boehner has said he wants the House to pass legislation before lawmakers go home for a four-week break over August, beginning with a measure to toughen border security.
He has also said he wont put any bill on the House floor that doesnt have the support of at least half of the GOP rank and file, a pledge that increases the challenge for Democrats and others who want to give a chance at citizenship to millions now in the country illegally.
I dont know that Republican leadership has a strategy that is workable, Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the second-ranking House Democrat, told reporters.
Unlike a sweeping, bipartisan bill that cleared the Senate last month, the House Judiciary Committee has cleared four smaller measures in recent weeks, none of which would include the possibility of citizenship.
Since he left the White House, Bush has rarely spoken publicly about either policy or politics – and he said he didnt particularly want to do either as he addressed the naturalization ceremony at his library.