Call it open mic day in the House GOP conference.
Republicans are set to huddle behind closed doors Wednesday afternoon to discuss the politically complicated issue of immigration. What to expect in the meeting? Some pretty stark differences in opinion in a group that has mostly refused to march in lockstep on a variety of other fronts.
"I think the leadership will benefit very much from hearing from the members," said Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), who chairs the House Judiciary Committee.
Tom Davis, a former National Republican Congressional Committee chairman, said he expects opponents of reform to have a big presence at the meeting.
"The more vociferous members are going to be pretty organized against it," Davis said. "And they are going to talk about it. And the leadership will sit there and listen."
Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), who heads the Judiciary Committee’s immigration subcommittee said, "At some point you do have to sit down and ask, is there anything you could support?"
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has been clear that he will not bring anything to a vote that does not have the support of the majority of House Republicans. Achieving that much cohesion could prove to be elusive, considering how fractured the conference has been during six key votes since the November election.
Further complicating matters is the fact that GOP leaders are expected to hear a variety of viewpoints Wednesday on border security, visas, and the most contentious question of all, whether illegal immigrants should be offered a path to citizenship or legal status.
Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), a fierce critic of a pathway to citizenship, said the gathering should serve to sort out where members stand on immigration.
"It's got to be the kind of meeting where enough Republicans stand up [and say] where they are on this issue," said King.
In addition to asking what should be done, Republicans will also need to decide how quickly they want to move and how they intend to get there.
Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) says he thinks the House should move slowly with whatever it does. As for Wednesday's meeting, "there are a whole variety of issues" to discuss, Cole said, "and the question as to whether or not they are pursued by a number of smaller bills later wrapped together, or [whether] to try to do something comprehensive."
For now, the piecemeal approach seems to be the path the House is on, with Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) signaling in a memo to rank-and-file members last week the House may be ready to consider narrow bills that have passed out of committee.
None of the five measures that have cleared the committee process address a path to citizenship or legal status. The bill the Senate recently passed does, and many reform advocates regard it as a must-have in any final legislation.
House Republicans will face pressure to support a path to citizenship or other legal status by external forces. And it's not just Democrats who will be pushing them. On Tuesday, a trio of leading conservatives penned a letter to Boehner urging the House to take up comprehensive reform -- either through one bill or many -- that includes a path to legal status.
"We offer support for an overhaul that secures our borders, allows for a market-driven future flow of legal immigrants, and provides a tough but humane process to earned legal status for those undocumented immigrants who wish to stay in the United States and continue to be productive members of our society," wrote American Action Forum President Douglas Holtz-Eakin, Americans For Tax Reform President Grover Norquist, and American Conservative Union President Al Cardenas.
Goodlatte, whose committee has passed four immigration bills, opposes a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants but is open to a legal status for those brought into the country illegally as young children.
Perhaps the best chance of warming House Republicans to a path to citizenship -- which, to be clear, seems like a tall order at this point -- lies in the hands of a bipartisan "Group of Seven" lawmakers working on a plan that is expected to include such a path. But despite lengthy talks, the group hasn't produced a proposal yet.
"It's taken longer than I wish it had, by the way. But the good news is we're making great progress," said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), one of the group's members.
Wednesday's meeting kicks off at 3 p.m. and could stretch on for hours. Various pro-immigrant groups will be picketing outside the building as the session begins.
After lawmakers exit, don't expect an immediate course of action, Boehner's office said.
"I wouldn't expect people to come out of the room and announce a plan immediately," said Boehner spokesman Michael Steel.
The bigger question, of course, is what, if anything, Republicans will be able to come together on in the immigration debate in the weeks and months to come. And given how much discord has seized the conference thus far, it's very much an open question.
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