“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.
The bill passed the Senate in late June with 68 votes, 14 of them from Republicans, but it now faces an uphill battle in a House dominated by conservatives from deep-red districts where citizenship for illegal immigrants remains blasphemy.
Many Republican elders now believe it’s essential to revive the GOP’s long-term prospects on a national level, leading to their support of Rubio and Ryan’s work despite the short-term risk of angering the party’s conservative base.
Complicating the legislation’s passage is that it has become something of a political orphan in the House, lacking support from any high-profile lawmaker. Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) have taken a hands-off approach, suggesting that a public embrace of policy specifics would harm the process.
Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, is moving piecemeal bills dealing with border security and worker visas while opposing citizenship for immigrants here illegally. The bipartisan group of seven House members, led by Gutierrez and three rank-and-file Republicans, has been unable to reach a deal that they could push as a group.
That leaves Ryan, a longtime supporter of immigration legislation dating back to his 2006 support for Gutierrez's bill that included citizenship rights, as the most prominent House backer of a comprehensive deal. His advisers say he is a “bridge builder” on the issue, hoping to reassure both proponents such as Gutierrez and staunch conservatives who have come to worship Ryan’s acumen on deficits.
While some Republicans make the case for political expediency, hoping to lure Latino voters in elections, Ryan sells his argument as an “economic-based immigration system,” one aide said. The idea is that the economy will be better served by bringing the raft of undocumented workers currently serving in low-wage jobs into the legal workforce and setting up the right number of visas for skilled employees in key industries.
“Immigration will help improve that, so that we have the labor we need to get the economic growth that we want, so that America can be a fast-growing economy in the 21st century. Immigration helps us get the labor force that we need so that we can have the kind of growth we want,” Ryan said last month at an event at the National Association of Manufacturers. He added: “If you come here and put your hand over your heart, and you pledge allegiance to the American flag, we want you.”
Ryan’s standing among House conservatives remains as strong as ever.
“What he brings is experience and trust. He’s deeply trusted in our conference,” said Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.), a junior member of the leadership and one of Ryan’s top acolytes on the Budget Committee.
Ryan’s chairmanship of the Budget Committee ends next year, and no one seems certain what he wants next. Some expect him to pursue a presidential bid, while others view him as a logical successor to Boehner as speaker.
His fundraising schedule is now packed with events benefiting fellow House Republicans, not Lincoln Day dinners in key presidential primary battlegrounds. That leaves many assuming he wants to stay in the House, with the gavel at the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee an increasingly likely prize.