By: Peter Nicholas
House Speaker John Boehner and other Republicans in Congress said Thursday that they want to consider broad changes to immigration laws next year, after an election in which Hispanic voters turned out in force to help President Barack Obama win a second term.
Lawmakers and the White House said their most immediate goal was averting the so-called fiscal cliff, the budget cuts and tax increases set to kick in next year. Once that is done, the White House and its allies in Congress have said, a major objective in 2013 is an immigration overhaul that was one of the president's promises in his first campaign for the White House.
Republican leaders say they are also ready to take up the issue. "We understand that we can't keep kicking this can down the road,'' an aide to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R., Va.), said Thursday. Legislation, the aide said, must include a broader plan for the estimated 11 million people living in the U.S. illegally. "We're going to address the 11 million people," the aide added.
Mr. Boehner, in an interview Thursday with ABC News, said an immigration overhaul was on his agenda. "This issue has been around far too long," he said. "A comprehensive approach is long overdue, and I'm confident that the president, myself and others can find the common ground to take care of this issue once and for all."
A House Republican leadership aide said lawmakers had absorbed the election results and believe that Republican Mitt Romney's tough stance on illegal immigration cost him Hispanic votes in the presidential election. "But the details are very important and are going to be very hard,'' the aide said about potential legislation. "It's going to take a big commitment from both sides to try and resolve them.''
White House officials have made quiet overtures to Republican senators, hoping to find allies in what may prove to be a major legislative battle of 2013. Advocates for revamping the immigration system are trying to arrange meetings with lawmakers, who return to Washington next week for the lame-duck session. They have asked to meet with GOP figures likely to influence the debate, including Mr. Cantor, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.).
One question is whether Republicans would support a process to grant legal status or citizenship to those in the country illegally, a move backed by most Democrats but which many Republicans criticize as amnesty. The Republican Party platform, adopted at the GOP convention this summer, opposes "any form of amnesty'' for people who intentionally violate immigration law, saying that it "rewards and encourages more law breaking'' and puts those seeking to enter the country legally at a disadvantage.
Immigration proposals never advanced in the last Congress, with some Republicans saying they were waiting for Mr. Obama to show leadership and others saying they didn't want to take up the issue. Democrats said they couldn't find enough Republicans willing to work with them. Republicans have often said that Congress should shore up border security before writing new laws concerning those in the country illegally.
Some Republican figures outside Washington have urged GOP lawmakers to soften their tone on immigration and get behind a legalization plan. Mark Shurtleff, the Republican attorney general in Utah, told reporters Thursday that for Republicans to succeed nationally and to be "relevant," they must "stop the pandering to the extreme right" on immigration.
Conservative talk show host Sean Hannity said on his radio program Thursday said he had "evolved" on the issue of illegal immigration when it comes to people who don't have criminal records. "It's simple for me to fix it," he said. "I think you control the border first. You create a pathway for those people that are here. You don't say, 'You've got to go home.' "
Exit polls of Tuesday's election showed that Mr. Romney won less than 30% of the Hispanic vote, a factor in his defeat in Colorado, Virginia and likely in Florida, where he trailed by a margin small enough that the Associated Press on Thursday hadn't yet declared a winner.
Mr. Romney had presented himself as an advocate of legal immigration but staked out a position to the right of his rivals during the Republican primaries, criticizing Texas Gov. Rick Perry for supporting in-state college tuition benefits for illegal immigrants and Newt Gingrich for saying some longtime illegal immigrants should gain legal status. He also called for "self-deportation'' of illegal immigrants.
Given the partisan divisions in Congress, a strategy that relies on passing a large bill might be doomed, some conservatives warned. A more promising alternative might be taking up smaller pieces of an immigration overhaul that enjoy bipartisan support.
Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles and a former official in George W. Bush's administration, said: "People are asking me, 'Can we get to full comprehensive immigration reform?' I don't think so. I think there are big policy differences. Some people just can't swallow a path to citizenship."
Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster, also was skeptical that the will existed to pass changes to immigration laws as a single package. A "widespread sense'' has grown within the party that it must change its policy and tone on some Hispanic-related issues, he said. But he added, "That's a far cry from saying the Republican Party is going to get behind some massive bill that tries to solve all the problems at once. That's a mistake."
"We've seen with comprehensive health-care reform, for example, the incredible difficulty of forging anything remotely resembling a majority coalition behind a massive bill that tries to fix several thousand things at once," Mr. Ayres said.
—Carol E. Lee and Corey Boles contributed to this article.
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