Democratic lawmakers, liberal pundits and left-wing pro-immigration reform groups insist a pathway to citizenship is an essential part of a comprehensive immigration reform bill. No way, no how, no bill without it, they will tell you. Democrats will say they won’t abide by “second-class citizenship” (although plenty of green card holders in the U.S. never seek citizenship). A chunk of Republicans agree, eyeing citizenship as an unavoidable political necessity that is the price of border security and increased visas for high- and low-skilled workers. But a segment of House Republicans are adamantly anti-citizenship and call the Democratic position cynical, driven by their own self-interest in getting millions of new voters for their party.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) (Alex Wong/Getty Images) Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

For right-wingers, citizenship is the sticking point. No matter how arduous the path and no matter the fines and penalties, they (incorrectly) label anything that would provide a path to citizenship as “amnesty.” (Amnesty, of course, is absolution and forgiveness of past wrongs with no penalty.) Is there a way to bridge this divide? Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) now says he objects only to a “special” pathway to citizenship, whatever that means.

Republicans think there is more flexibility on citizenship than Democrats will admit. A Republican pro-immigration senator recently told me that if presented with a plan to legalize most of the 11  million illegal immigrants here, Democrats would be hard-pressed to say no.

Now comes some evidence that might enhance his argument. The New York Times reports: “Many House Republicans reject the Senate path as rewarding immigrants who broke the law. But a growing number of Republicans say they remain ready to work on immigration and could consider legalization, if it did not involve any direct route to citizenship. For foreigners . . . who cannot get a driver’s license in most states and live with gnawing worry about being fired or deported — that would be enough. They aspire to become Americans, they said in phone interviews, but would settle for less if they could work and drive legally, and visit relatives outside the country.”

The Times report candidly acknowledges that Democrats’ political opposition to anything less than immigration reform is not matched by immigrants themselves (“among immigrants there is no consensus”). That, correctly or not, has spurred hope among Republicans to devise some compromise on this point:

Mr. Goodlatte and the majority leader, Representative Eric Cantor, also of Virginia, are working on a bill with a path to citizenship limited to young immigrants here illegally.

Representative Darrell Issa of California, the powerful chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said he had been writing a hybrid bill that would give illegal immigrants a six-year provisional status, allowing those with family ties here to naturalize eventually through regular channels, and creating a long-term guest worker program for others.

Representative Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida is proposing earned citizenship for a broader group. And three Republicans have signed on to a bill by House Democrats with a pathway mirroring the Senate’s.

From our vantage point, the immigration issue will only be settled once and for all with some sort of path, albeit long and plainly not “amnesty,” if citizenship is available for the large majority of those who want to pursue it. Short of that, immigrations will be used as a wedge issue against Republicans. Moreover, the administrative challenge involved in creating two classes of green card holders (one who can get citizenship and one who can’t) may beyond the abilities of our enforcement system.

As a political matter, the more hope Republicans hold for a deal in which a large number of illegal immigrants effectively are boxed out of citizenship, the lower the chances of getting reform completed this year or next. The president and Democrats have every reason to demagogue the issue and little incentive to budge. If a deal is to be done before the 2014 election, Republicans will need to come to terms with a pathway to citizenship, defining “special” in a way that still allows most illegal immigrants willing to go through the process to have the option of obtaining citizenship.

The most optimal time for a deal on immigration may be between 2014 and 2016. If the Senate flips to a GOP majority and Obama’s presidency is essentially stalled, a non-citizenship deal might be possible. If Democrats hold the Senate (and certainly if they expand their advantage and/or take the House), chances for a deal with a pathway to citizenship certainly increase.

Ironically, the president’s weakened state may make it more difficult to reach a deal in the short run. The GOP may figure it can run just on Obamacare and win big in 2014, while the White House can’t afford to annoy its base by agreeing to anything less than citizenship for most of the 11 million. That leaves illegal immigrants, many of whom would welcome something less than full citizenship, once again at the mercy of political currents that perpetually force the two sides to diverge on what could be a political winner for both.