WASHINGTON — As House Republicans weighed their next steps on immigration Wednesday, former President George W. Bush nudged them ever so gently from the Texas sidelines to carry a “benevolent spirit” into a debate that includes a possible path to citizenship for millions living in the country illegally.
The former president’s 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 Bush’s remarks were reminders of the imperative that many national party leaders feel that Republicans must broaden their appeal among Hispanic voters to compete successfully in future presidential elections. President Barack Obama took more than 70 percent of their votes in winning a second term last fall.
“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 president’s message, challenging House Speaker John Boehner to proceed in the same spirit.
At the Capitol, Republican aides said a closed-door meeting of the rank and file that consumed much of the afternoon was designed as a listening session, rather than a forum for deciding how the House will proceed as it considers legislation to overhaul the immigration system. The eventual strategy will be up to the leadership, Boehner and others, to decide in the coming days.
Boehner, R-Ohio, has said he wants the House to pass legislation on the subject before lawmakers go home for a four-week break over August, beginning with a measure to toughen border security. He has also said he won’t put any bill on the House floor that doesn’t have the support of at least half of the GOP rank and file, a pledge that only increases the challenge for Democrats and others who want to give a chance at citizenship to millions now in the country illegally.
“I don’t 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.
One would toughen enforcement of immigration laws, and includes a provision that would permit local police officers to enforce such laws as part of an attempt to raise the number of deportations. It also encourages immigrants in the United States illegally to depart voluntarily, an echo of Mitt Romney’s call for “self-deportation” in the 2012 presidential race.
Other measures would create a new mandatory system for employees to verify the legal status of their workers, create a new temporary program for farm workers and expand the number of visas for employees in technology industries.
By contrast, the Senate bill, passed 68-32, would increase border security, provide a pathway to citizenship for many of the estimated 11 million immigrants illegally in the country, expand the highly skilled worker program and set up new guest worker arrangements for lower-skilled workers and farm laborers.
In more than four years since he left the White House, Bush has rarely spoken out publicly about either policy or politics — and he said he didn’t particularly want to do either as he addressed the naturalization ceremony at his presidential library.
Still, his message was an unmistakable echo of the failed attempt he made as president to overhaul immigration laws, including providing a route to citizenship for many.
He said the nation has a problem: ‘The laws governing the immigration system are broken. The system is broken.”
Without mentioning Republicans or Democrats, he said “I do hope there is a positive resolution to the debate” now unfolding in Congress. “And I hope during the debate that we keep a benevolent spirit in mind, and we understand the contributions immigrants make to our country.”
Bush’s campaign to overhaul immigration legislation while in the White House included the political calculation that Republicans needed to take steps to appeal to Hispanic voters who are an increasingly large part of the population, particularly in states like Texas, Florida, Nevada and Colorado.
At the same time, relatively few House Republicans represents districts with substantial Hispanic populations, and many say they fear primary election challenges from the right if they support citizenship for immigrants in the United States illegally.
Within a few hours of Bush’s remarks, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi took note of them in a letter to Boehner.
“In that same spirit, the 113th Congress has the opportunity to make our mark on American history by enacting comprehensive immigration reform,” she wrote.
House Democrats insist that a path to citizenship be included in any legislation, and Obama has said he won’t sign any bill that lacks it.
“We believe that the president is very firm on that,” Rep. Ruben Hinojosa said after he and other members of the all-Democratic Congressional Hispanic Caucus met with Obama at the White House.
THE ASSOCIATED PRESSs Henry C. Jackson and Ken Thomas in Washington and Jamie Stengel in Dallas contributed to this story.