House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

House Republican leaders Tuesday ducked a central component of the emerging bipartisan Senate plan to bring about a comprehensive reform to the nation's immigration system, declining to voice an opinion on whether there should be a "pathway to citizenship" for undocumented immigrants already living and working in the United States illegally.

Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) called that proposal "a very difficult part of any of these bills" but went to great lengths to avoid uttering any possible opinion on the issue, which Senate Democrats and President Obama demand as a key plank of any immigration plan.

"What I want to do is to encourage both sides of the Capitol and both parties to continue talking to one another so that we can resolve this issue in a bipartisan manner," the speaker told reporters after the weekly closed-door huddle of House Republicans in the Capitol basement.

Pressed again on the citizenship issue, Boehner declined to discuss the single most talked-about immigration proposal of the last seven years. "I want to just encourage members on both sides of the Capitol and both parties to continue to try to come to some resolution of that issue," he said.

His non-responses demonstrate the issue is still raw inside the increasingly conservative House Republican Conference, where many lawmakers are more fearful of a conservative challenge from the right in a low-turnout primary than they are of further damaging the national GOP's brand as a party that is hostile to Hispanic voters -- who gave 70 percent of their ballots to Obama last November.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), in a speech that his office has spent a week hyping, dipped his toe into the immigration waters later Tuesday morning by endorsing the tenets of the Dream Act, allowing a pathway to citizenship for children who were brought illegally to the United States by their parents.

"A good place to start is with the kids. One of the great founding principles of our country was that children would not be punished for the mistakes of their parents. It is time to provide an opportunity for legal residence and citizenship for those who were brought to this country as children and who know no other home," Cantor said. "I’m pleased that many of my colleagues in both chambers of Congress on both sides of the aisle have begun work in good faith to address these issues. And I’m pleased these discussions make border security, employment verification and creating a workable guest worker program an immediate priority. It’s the right thing to do for our families, for our security, and for our economy."

But in an interview with CBS News on Tuesday morning, Cantor declined to endorse a bipartisan reform plan backed by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). "I really admire Senator Rubio and the kinds of things he’s standing for," Cantor said, when asked if he supported Rubio's effort. "I think he's moving in the right direction."