U.S. House Speaker John Boehner gathered fellow congressional Republicans to plan the party's future on Thursday, saying the time had come for his members to help pass immigration reform.
Most experts agree the Republicans' low level of support among voters of recent immigrant stock cost their candidates badly in recent elections, and the party is under pressure to reach out.
But many within the party ranks fear that passing legislation to help regularize the situation of millions of undocumented migrants could hurt them with voters from their white conservative base.
Some lawmakers are resisting Boehner and the party leadership's call to move on immigration, and the party must decide whether to risk an internal fight before November's congressional elections.
One possible compromise would be for the party to agree basic principles on immigration reform but postpone a vote on any new law until a new Congress sits in 2015.
Secluded at a bayside hotel on Maryland's Eastern Shore for a three-day retreat, the Republican majority in House of Representatives was thrashing out guidelines for candidates.
Republican aides signaled that party leaders are circulating policy proposals that included a pathway to legal status -- but not citizenship -- for many of the 11 million people living in the shadows.
"This problem has been around for at least the last 15 years. It's been turned into a political football," Boehner told reporters on the sidelines of the closed-door sessions.
"I think it's unfair, so I think it's time to deal with it. But how you deal with it is going to be critically important."
Republican leaders have acknowledged the need for reform, citing the party's low support among a growing Hispanic community.
But they have stressed they will proceed piecemeal rather than allowing a single grand reform bill to pass, while approving separate legislation to address issues like improving border security.
Boehner would not be drawn on whether the proposals address the critical legalization-versus-citizenship issue.
"We're going to talk to our members today about the principles that the leadership team has put together," he said.
The leadership is sensitive to concerns raised by party conservatives like Steve King that legalizing undocumented immigrants is akin to amnesty.
After U.S. President Barack Obama's State of the Union address, King said he would be leaning hard on members at the retreat to oppose backing a pathway to citizenship or legalization.
"If we set up people to say 'we're going to legalize you but you'll never get a path to citizenship,' then there are two classes of people in this country. That's a bad idea."
Last year's landmark bipartisan Senate bill offered the most comprehensive immigration overhaul in a generation, reforming visa rules and providing a 13-year pathway to citizenship for millions.
But the Republican-led House refused to take it up, despite calls from some business groups, which lean Republican but support immigration reform as a way to boost the economy.
Also on Thursday, the Republican leadership wrote to Obama saying they were ready to "come together" with the president and his Democrats on legislation addressing skills training, natural gas production and federally funded research.
The caucus was also studying how to extend US borrowing authority: accede to Democratic demands for a clean debt ceiling hike, or attach policy riders that would help reduce the debt.
Among the options being thrown around: tacking on a fast-track trade promotion authority, backed by Republicans and the president but opposed by many Democrats, that would allow straight up or down votes on two mammoth free-trade deals with Asia and Europe.
But congressman Dave Camp, powerful chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said the talks on raising the debt limit were "still preliminary."
The US Treasury has estimated it will no longer be able to meet its payment obligations after late February unless Congress acts.© (c) 2014 AFP