They pass a bill -- or a conference committee produces a compromise after both chambers pass their own bills -- that includes a path to legal status and/or something along the lines of the DREAM Act (legalization for young illegal immigrants), but no new path to citizenship.
This makes sense for a host of reasons:
1. It's a middle-ground bill. It brings illegal immigrants out of the shadows but allows Republicans to tell primary voters that they didn't vote for "amnesty." Republicans can rightly argue that illegal immigrants aren't being given an advantage over those going through legal channels to earn citizenship.
2. Republicans can tell their base that they avoided potentially granting voting rights to millions of voters who they fear would vote for Democrats. Conservatives have been using this argument against comprehensive immigration reform for months -- noting that allowing millions of Democratic-leaning Latinos to register to vote could cost them future elections. (For what it's worth, this wouldn't happen for a long time, since the paths to citizenship being proposed would take more than a decade, and it's not clear how many illegal immigrants would actually seek citizenship, given the costs and hurdles involved.)
3. It would put Democrats in a tough spot. Congressional Democrats who are leading the immigration fight insist that they will not support a bill that stops short of a path to citizenship. But of course they are going to say that; caving on that item at this juncture would effectively take a path to citizenship right off the table. In the end, if there's a bill that doesn't include a path to citizenship but does move the ball forward for illegal immigrants, are Democrats really going to be the ones to halt it when the alternative is nothing?
It remains to be seen whether House Republicans could even rally the votes for a path to legal status; some would still inevitably label it as "amnesty." And few people are talking in these terms -- mostly because it's still quite early in the process and because both sides' leaders would like to have a path to citizenship as part of the package.
But Democratic and Republican aides alike say this is a distinctly possible final outcome, given the makeup of the two chambers and the fact that House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) insists any bill must have the support of a majority of House Republicans (a.k.a. the "Hastert Rule").
At least one House Democrat -- Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.) said in an interview on MSNBC on Thursday that "there's always room for debate" on legalization rather than citizenship.
House Republicans say Democrats, who have already compromised on border security, would do well to do the same on a path to citizenship.
"It’s clear that if President Obama eventually signs an immigration bill – or bills – it will be considerably different than the Senate-passed bill," said one aide to House GOP leadership, granted anonymity to discuss strategy. "If Washington Democrats want to get this done, drawing lines in the sand is entirely counter-productive.”
Jim Manley, a former top aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), said Democrats could vote against a path to legalization rather than citizenship if forced to choose, by arguing that it effectively creates two different classes of Americans. They could simply say that Republicans prevented an even-better deal for illegal immigrants, he said.
But he also said the House could indeed apply pressure to Senate Democrats by passing something short of a path to citizenship.
"My worst fear is slightly different," Manley said, "and that is after some fits and starts, [House Republicans] send over something only dealing with the DREAMer kids and dare the Senate to oppose it."
Predicting anything in the current immigration debate -- particularly given how unwieldy the House GOP conference is -- is a fool's errand. And more and more, the likeliest outcome appears to be nothing getting done at all.
But given the Republican Party's recognition that it needs to do something -- and the fact that it's going to be very, very difficult to get a majority of House Republicans to vote for anything with a path to citizenship -- offering a path to legalization of some sort might be a good way to force Democrats' hand for once.
It also might be the only way that Republicans can move the needle on this issue -- and, by extension, hope to start mending fences with Latino voters.