The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why the House GOP immigration plan is more political sweet spot than wasteland

There are two ways of looking at the immigration plan House GOP leaders floated Thursday: 1) It might just be the sweet spot in a complex debate that could lead to a deal. 2) The combined outcry from the right and left will kill it.

The early read: It's looking more like #1.

President Obama suggested in an interview that aired Friday that he may be open to the idea of legal status but not a special path to citizenship for most of the nation's 11 million undocumented immigrants. Obama's long said he prefers a path to citizenship. So the fact that he didn't shut the door on the list of principles House GOP leaders released was significant. Other reform advocates like Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and the Chamber of Commerce also sounded notes of cautious optimism.

There was some outcry from the left  and right. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka preemptively suggested it didn't go far enough while some conservatives branded the guiding principles as "amnesty." But on the whole, criticism was muted.

The debate over immigration illustrates how truly difficult it often is to strike a big deal in politics, especially in divided government. Winning enough support to get a bill passed on a hot button issue lies in finding not just a gray area but the best possible gray area. If the middle ground includes things that are too hard for both sides of the debate to swallow, there will be nobody left in the middle to support it.

The most contentious part of the immigration debate is the question of whether most undocumented immigrants should be allowed a special path to citizenship. The House GOP plan says no. The plan that passed the Senate says yes. The initial plan being forwarded by House Republican leadership endorses legal status but not a path to citizenship -- except for those who were brought into the country illegally as children.

Right now, that appears a middle ground worthy of at least a closer look, in the eyes of many major players invested in the issue.

The House GOP principles, are, of course, just a first step. Initial legislation, let alone a final bill, could be months away. And as always, the devil is in the details.

In addition, there are some big obstacles standing in the way of reaching a deal that can pass the Republican-controlled House and Democratic-controlled Senate as well as win the signature of Obama. One is the lack of a broad political imperative for most House Republicans to embrace reform.

For most House Republicans, the biggest electoral worry is the GOP primary, not the general election. And even if a bill isn't unveiled until after the filing deadlines for all the races, the 2016 House elections are not that far away. That could be enough to give rank and file Republicans pause about opening themselves up to potential attacks from the right.

Yes, it could all fall apart. But in the earliest stages of the rebooted debate on immigration, there are several emerging signs that it won't.