One central question that will help decide the fate of immigration reform is this: Will Republicans — who recently rolled out principles that support legalization but oppose a “special path” to citizenship — ultimately insist that their solution must preclude citizenship for the nation’s undocumented immigrants?

The answer to this is almost certainly No — and this continues to be a poorly understood aspect of the debate.

In an interview with me, a leading Republican on immigration — Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida — said there is virtually no chance the solution Republicans embrace will rule out citizenship, saying he’d be “beyond surprised” at any such outcome.

Precluding citizenship would be “frankly unacceptable,” said Diaz-Balart, who is plugged into current discussions among Republicans over what specific policies to adopt. “That’s not something I’ve seen or heard. It would be against everything conservatives stand for. If you have a process where people can earn a way to get right with the law, and then get to the back of any current legal pathways, then if there are some who want to put their hands on their hearts and pledge allegiance to the flag, should we deny those folks?”

GOP opposition to a “special” path has led many to conclude the choice is between a path to citizenship or a permanent sub-citizenship class. But that isn’t necessarily the choice that’s actually before us. Rather, with Republicans willing to embrace legalization, and not precluding citizenship, the real question is whether Republicans will also be willing to facilitate existing pathways to citizenship for those who get legalized and have family or work sponsorship. This can be done by getting rid of currently existing legal barriers that prevent the undocumented from getting green cards, and by expanding the number of available green cards. A recent nonpartisan report found that such tactics could eventually make citizenship available to as many as 6.5 million of the undocumented.

Asked directly whether Republicans were open to doing away with these barriers, Diaz-Balart declined comment, saying he couldn’t get into any such details. But at any rate, this is one of the key questions to be asking Republicans right now — because it’s central to the possibility of a deal.

And this leads directly to another question Republicans face: What conditions will they place on legalization? On Sunday Paul Ryan reiterated security must come before any legal status. But this requires more clarity. Will Republicans support the undocumented working here legally in some sort of probationary status, while security metrics are met? Ryan has hinted at this, too, but very cryptically.

Diaz-Balart, however, confirmed this is seriously being considered, noting that one solution would be to have a series of metrics that must be met over time, while the undocumented are allowed to work.

“Border security has to happen first and foremost,” Diaz-Balart said. But he added: “There’s an understanding that if you’re going to have people come out of the shadows and get right with the law, you want them to be working. It all has to be done in essence concurrently. There are a number of triggers you must do before even registration starts. Then you can do triggers while work is happening. This has to be woven in througout the entire process.”

The key will turn on what that all looks like in actual GOP legislation, and there is a very long road from here to compromise. But Diaz-Balart’s comments suggest Republicans are seriously grappling with the actual policy challenges before them and are at least aware that a willingness to cross these bridges is a necessary first step.

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* OBAMA TO PASS DEPORTATION MILESTONE: David Nakamura has a good overview of the intense pressure on Obama to use executive authority to slow deportations, which will only increase if immigration reform fails, since that will mean no legislative solution is forthcoming. Note this:

This spring, the Obama administration will surpass 2 million deportations — more than the George W. Bush administration removed from the country in eight years, in part because Congress boosted border control resources in the mid-2000s.

Obama continues to get pilloried for the failure to slow deportations, yet at the same time, Republicans continue to fault him for not enforcing the law, which may well be their excuse for killing reform.

* STALLED IRAN BILL IS SETBACK FOR AIPAC: The New York Times has a tough piece detailing how the stalling of the Iran sanctions bill in the Senate is a real defeat for AIPAC, which has pretty much stopped lobbying for the measure. The Times notes that the American Jewish community has engaged on this issue in a more complex way — with many supporting the White House, not AIPAC – raising questions about the group’s “role as the unchallenged voice of the pro-Israel lobby in Washington.”

A key to AIPAC’s success has been its ability to corral broad bipartisan support, but now that Dems in Congress are mobilizing against the measure in both chambers, this is in doubt when it comes to engagement with Iran.

 * REPUBLICANS REFINE DEBT LIMIT HOSTAGE DEMANDS: Robert Costa reports:

Several House members told The Washington Post on Monday that Republican leaders have narrowed their list of possible debt-limit strategies to two options: trading a one-year extension for approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, or trading a one-year extension for repeal of the Affordable Care Act’s risk corridors…A clean debt-limit extension is not yet on the GOP’s radar, though [Speaker John] Boehner has said he would avoid default.

Boehner will avoid default? Okay, don’t stage a debt limit hostage crisis. It’s almost as if everyone has agreed to forget Republicans caved on this twice before, revealing their position to be untenable. Apparently House conservatives must be reassured that they’ll have their chance to make extortion demands.

* GOP WILL EVENTUALLY EMBRACE IMMIGRATION REFORM: Michael Gerson has a must read arguing that the Republican Party will simply have to embrace immigration reform eventually. This factoid is startling:

There are a variety of ways to do the electoral math, but here is one: Republicans won about a quarter of the Latino vote in a nation when about a quarter of all children entering kindergarten are Latino….Eventually, a party at war with demography becomes accustomed to defeat.

It’s true, as Gerson notes, that even if the GOP embraces reform, Republicans will still have a long way to go in winning over Latino voters, who tend to agree with Dems on core ideological questions about government. But embracing reform is essential in getting Latinos to even consider GOP ideas.

* OBAMA LAYS OFF HARRY REID ON TRADE: In their meeting yesterday, President Obama reportedly did not urge Harry Reid to drop his opposition to the fast track authority he seeks on the free trade deals he is negotiating, apparently fearing a counter-productive public fight. As noted yesterday, major elements of the Dem base oppose fast track, and progressive groups note it would be folly to force Dem Members of Congress to vote for unpopular trade deals heading into the 2014 elections.

* FLORIDA SPECIAL ELECTION HEATS UP: With both sides insisting the special election in Florida’s 13th District will indicate the political climate heading into the midterms, Dem Alex Sink and Republican David Jolly squared off in a debate yesterday. Florida columnist John Romano sums up Jolly’s right wing agenda, which is striking given this is a a swing district:

Obamacare? Repeal it. Common Core? Dump it. How to handle Syria? Attack it. Immigration reform? Forget it. Roe vs. Wade? Overturn it.

The meaning of special elections tends to be overstated, so I’d caution against reading too much into the results, but you can bet that if Sink wins, it will do nothing to dent the certainty among Republicans that Obamacare’s collapse is enough to fuel a glorious GOP triumph next fall.

“THE ELIZABETH WARREN OF CIVIL LIBERTIES”: Today the Progressive Change Campaign Committee is endorsing Shenna Bellows, challenger to Maine Senator Susan Collins. Bellows lags significantly behind in cash on hand, and trails Collins by a huge margin. But while beating Collins is a long shot, candidates like Bellows — who supports expanding Social Security and repealing the Patriot Act, earning her the title of “Elizabeth Warren of civil liberties” from PCC — are worth watching, as they are campaigning on progressive positions very few Dem candidates will adopt.

What else?

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.