By LAURA MECKLER, NEIL KING JR. and MIRIAM JORDAN
WASHINGTON—Congressional Republicans and their allies, laying the groundwork for an immigration bill, are preparing to restart talks with Democrats in the House and are raising money to support GOP lawmakers who back changes to immigration laws in cooperation with like-minded Democrats.
As part of the efforts, Republicans outside Congress are forming a super PAC to support party members who back immigration legislation and then face GOP primary challengers.
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“We want to give cover to pro-immigration, pro-reform Republicans,” said Carlos Gutierrez, a former commerce secretary under President George W. Bush, who formed the group with Charlie Spies, treasurer to the biggest super PAC that supported Mitt Romney in the last presidential campaign. The new group, Republicans for Immigration Reform, hopes to raise millions of dollars.
In a speech Tuesday, Mr. Bush argued immigrants are a force for good in American society—a rare step into the spotlight for the former president. Mr. Bush, who while in the White House tried unsuccessfully to push a sweeping immigration bill through Congress, said immigrants help “build our economy” and “invigorate our soul.”
“As our nation debates the proper course of action relating to immigration, I hope we do so with a benevolent spirit and keep in mind the contribution of immigrants,” he said at a conference co-hosted by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.
Also Tuesday, some 250 evangelical Christians, representatives of business and law-enforcement officials convened in Washington in an effort to push Congress toward an immigration overhaul. Over the last few years, Christian and business leaders, traditional Republican allies, have been working to build support for an overhaul.Now, with the issue ripe for action, they are preparing a broad lobbying effort.
“We have been pandering…to a small minority of our party,” Mark Shurtleff, GOP attorney general of Utah, said at the conference. “Now is the time to get this done.”
GOP leaders have shown renewed interest in reworking immigration laws since the election, in which Hispanic voters, who tend to back liberalized immigration laws, overwhelmingly supported President Barack Obama.
But many Republicans remain opposed, particularly to conferring legal status or citizenship on the 11 million people who came to the U.S. illegally.
Democrats—and a growing number of Republicans—are pushing for a comprehensive bill that would include border-security measures, employment verification to prevent firms from hiring undocumented workers as well as a path to citizenship for the 11 million illegal immigrants.
In the House, a bipartisan group began meeting secretly in 2009 to craft an immigration bill and has legislation ready to go, people familiar with the talks said.
The group, which included about a dozen active members from across the political spectrum, met for more than two years before shelving the effort amid what they saw as a lack of support from leaders in both parties, these people said.
Now, members are working to revive the legislation. “I think we have a very narrow but a real window of opportunity” for action next year, said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R., Fla.), one of the participants.”There are clearly members of the House in both parties who want to solve the issue, not talk about it.” Democrats in the group include Reps. Zoe Lofgren and Xavier Becerra of California.
One Republican familiar with the conversations described the bill as “90% there.” The group backed a comprehensive approach, including an opportunity for legal status and citizenship for those here illegally, he said.
House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) has said he backs a multipronged bill. But the House Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over the issue, is stocked with opponents of granting legal status to illegal immigrants. Some Republicans want Mr. Boehner to appoint a working group on immigration as a way to work around the Judiciary panel, but the speaker is unlikely to cut out his committee chairman altogether.
The new Judiciary chairman, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R., Va.), has taken a tough stance on immigration, supporting punishment for employers who hire undocumented workers as well as an Arizona law requiring police to check the status of people they stop for possible infractions.
In a statement, Mr. Goodlatte said immigration would be a top priority for the committee but didn’t say how it would proceed.
Divisions within the GOP are apparent. The GOP platform adopted this summer opposes “any form of amnesty” for those who intentionally violate immigration law.
But Rep. Dan Lungren (R., Calif.), who lost his bid for re-election, said that at a recent meeting of the House Republican Conference he stood up and made the case for passing an immigration bill. At least one House Republican strongly identified with the tea-party movement, Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho, said he favored a broad bill that would give legal status to illegal immigrants, but not a special path to citizenship.
Mr. Spies, one of the founders of the new super PAC Republicans for Immigration Reform, said the presidential election illustrated how badly Republicans need to reverse their slide with Latino voters. In 2004, Mr. Bush received 44% of Hispanics votes; that fell to 27% last month, a disastrous trajectory for the GOP if left unchecked.
This article originally appeared on the WSJ on 12.5.12