Carolyn Kaster, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's new declaration that he's open to legal status for many immigrants short of citizenship sounds a lot like House Speaker John Boehner and other GOP leaders, an election-year compromise that numerous Republicans as well as Democrats crave.
But the drive for the first overhaul in three decades still faces major resistance from many Republicans who are wary that the divisive issue could derail what they see as a smooth glide path to winning November's congressional elections. And they deeply distrust the Democratic president to enforce the law.
Just hours after Boehner pitched immigration to the GOP at a Maryland retreat, Obama suddenly indicated he would be open to legal status for many of the 11 million living here illegally, dropping his once-ironclad insistence on a special path to citizenship.
Democrats, including Obama, and other immigration proponents have warned repeatedly about the creation of a two-tier class system.
"If the speaker proposes something that says right away, folks aren't being deported, families aren't being separated, we're able to attract top young students to provide the skills or start businesses here, and then there's a regular process of citizenship, I'm not sure how wide the divide ends up being," Obama said in a CNN interview that was recorded Thursday and aired Friday.
Obama's flexibility is a clear indication of the president's desire to secure an elusive legislative achievement before voters decide whether to hand him even more opposition in Congress. Republicans are expected to maintain their grip on the House and have a legitimate shot at grabbing the majority in the Senate.
"I'm going to do everything I can in the coming months to see if we can get this over the finish line," Obama said Friday of an immigration overhaul in a Google Plus Hangout talk.
In an earlier compromise, Obama signaled late last year that he could accept the House's piecemeal, bill-by-bill approach to immigration changes after months of backing a comprehensive, bipartisan Senate bill. Notably, he calibrated his comments on immigration in his State of the Union address this week.
"I think he realizes that this is a very delicate issue, it's very controversial and I think his recent statements have been very, very positive in allowing us to move forward," Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., a proponent of immigration overhaul, told reporters Friday.
Boehner, for his part, tried to sell his reluctant broader caucus on tackling immigration this year by casting it as critical to job creation, economic growth and national security. The speaker, along with Reps. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Jeff Denham, R-Calif., argued for action in a closed-door session with other House Republicans Thursday at their annual retreat in Cambridge, Md.
Boehner rejected the idea of a special path to citizenship.
"If Democrats insist on that, then we are not going to get anywhere this year," he said.
The House leaders' "standards for immigration reform" call for increased border security, better law enforcement within the U.S., a pathway to legal status but not citizenship for millions of adults who live in America unlawfully — after they pay back taxes and fines — and a chance for legal residence and citizenship for children brought to the country illegally.
But several Republicans questioned the strategy of pushing a contentious issue that divides the caucus and angers conservative GOP voters — especially since the party has been capitalizing on Obama's abysmal approval ratings and on Democrats' troubles in defending the national health care overhaul.
Any doubts about the Republicans' election-year prospects were erased with news this week of the planned retirement of Rep. Henry Waxman, a 20-term lawmaker who would have become chairman of a House committee if Democrats could win back the chamber.
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