“You’re a Catholic; I’m a Catholic; we cannot have a permanent underclass of Americans exploited in America,” Ryan told Gutierrez, according to the Democrat’s recollection of the November discussion.
Given those sentiments, and the drubbing the GOP ticket took among Latino voters, supporters of an immigration overhaul expected Ryan to emerge as the House’s most prominent public voice on the issue.
Instead, as the issue has grown more contentious with the recent passage of a sprawling 1,200-page Senate bill, Ryan has worked quietly behind the scenes, declining to become the public face of the issue and leaving the effort without any prominent sponsors among the House GOP leadership.
The 43-year-old congressman, whose own political future remains bright enough that some regard him as a 2016 presidential contender, has been using that stature to prod Gutierrez's bipartisan group of seven House members to keep trying for a still-elusive compromise.
He has held private meetings with members of the group and has reached out to other Republicans to try to find support for a comprehensive plan that would include a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million immigrants already in the country illegally.
On Wednesday afternoon, Ryan made a similar plea at a special immigration meeting of the House Republican Conference. He linked stronger border security and citizenship for undocumented workers to a more vibrant economy, according to people in the room.
But Wednesday’s meeting was behind closed doors, leaving Ryan’s imprint largely invisible to the public — just as it was eight months ago in his chance meeting with Gutierrez in the House gym.
That is a clear example of how Ryan intends to handle his support for a comprehensive plan, according to associates. Dan Senor, who was Ryan’s top policy aide in the 2012 campaign, said Ryan will make an aggressive case for a bipartisan bill in his own way.
“His approach is not to do a million TV interviews, but to thoughtfully engage his colleagues, usually behind closed doors. So look for Ryan to make a full-throated, optimistic, pro-growth case for immigration reform; not through a big media rollout, but by talking directly to his colleagues,” Senor, who remains close to Ryan, said Wednesday.
Ryan’s role will be different from that of another 40-something Republican, Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), who became the highest-profile GOP supporter of the Senate’s legislation. Rubio helped craft the legislative language in bipartisan talks among eight senators, then aggressively sold the deal to skeptical conservative audiences in dozens and dozens of radio and TV appearances, sometimes several in a single day.