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House GOP leaders face stiff challenge in selling immigration principles

House Republican leaders Thursday unveiled their long-awaited list of immigration reform principles, outlining a step-by-step approach that includes several border security provisions, but also provides the opportunity for undocumented immigrants currently living in the country to obtain legal status.

The document touched off a fresh round of debate within the GOP about the political consequences of taking the issue up at this time, while congressional Democrats and supporters of overhauling the system expressed guarded optimism.

The Morning LineHouse Speaker John Boehner said he believed now was the time to act. “It’s been turned into a political football. I think it’s unfair. So I think it’s time to deal with it, but how we deal with it is going to be critically important,” the Ohio Republican told reporters at a press conference on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where his members had gathered for their annual retreat.

Boehner added that a comprehensive plan like the one passed by the Senate last June would not sell with the American people, who’ve soured on Washington’s ability to enact sweeping legislation.

“It’s one thing to pass a law. It’s another thing to have the confidence of the American people behind that law as you’re passing it,” Boehner said. “That’s why doing immigration reform in a common-sense, step-by-step manner helps our members understand the bite-sized pieces. It helps our constituents build more confidence that what we’re doing makes sense.”

Politico’s Seung Min Kim and Jake Sherman report Boehner faced a skeptical audience when he formally presented the standards on Thursday:

At the private meeting where the proposal was unveiled, lawmakers talked about their distrust that President Barack Obama will enforce the law, according to sources inside of the room. Ryan and Boehner spoke in favor of the effort, but high-profile conservatives like Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) and Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) were more suspect of the reform push.

“Nobody, even those who want to get this done, trusts the president,” Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) said in a phone interview Thursday evening. “And I understand it, because I don’t either.”

Beyond the general distrust of the president by many House Republicans, GOP leaders also were likely to confront concerns about granting legal status to people who broke the law when they entered the country. Iowa Rep. Steve King, a staunch opponent of immigration reform, tweeted that members were having an “intense debate” over the standards along with the hashtag “NoAmnesty.”

The document from House GOP leaders rejects a “special path to citizenship” for most undocumented immigrants, but does make an exception for children brought to the country “through no fault of their own” and who have served in the military or received a college degree.

President Barack Obama told CNN’s Jake Tapper Thursday that he thought immigration reform stood a “good chance” of passing.

Asked about whether he could support a plan that does not include a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented people currently living in the country, Mr. Obama said he would not “prejudge what gets to my desk.”

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said Wednesday that a path to citizenship would be key for winning Democratic support.

Other proponents of comprehensive reform said they were willing to give House Republicans room to work, including Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., a member of the Senate’s “Gang of Eight.”

“While these standards are certainly not everything we would agree with, they leave a real possibility that Democrats and Republicans, in both the House and Senate, can in some way come together and pass immigration reform that both sides can accept. It is a long, hard road but the door is open,” Schumer said in a statement.

The Washington Post’s Ed O’Keefe reports Arizona GOP Sen. John McCain also welcomed the guidelines:

Asked about the House GOP’s immigration “principles,” McCain described them as “fine” and added that “I will continue to think they’re fine until they work their way through it, and I will support everything they’re doing and certainly will not take shots from the sidelines.”

The question now becomes: How soon do the principles outlined Thursday turn into actual legislation? With Republican incumbents wary of potential primary challenges from the right heading into this year’s midterm elections, those hoping for movement sooner rather than later could have their patience put to the test.

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Bridget Bowman and Ruth Tam contributed to this report.

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