WASHINGTON -- Rep. Peter King said Tuesday legislation to overhaul the immigration system faces a long and difficult path in the House as Republican representatives meet Wednesday to discuss how to proceed on an issue that divides their party.
Republican opposition to a comprehensive immigration overhaul has stiffened as concerns about the big Latino vote for Democrats in the 2012 elections have receded and President Barack Obama's popularity has slipped, King (R-Seaford) said.
"It's going to be a long process, because 85 percent of [House] Republicans are in districts that, for the most part, do not support the Senate bill," King said.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) called the closed-door meeting to hear from his conference members what they should do after the Senate passed a comprehensive immigration bill last month by a 68-32 vote, which included support from 14 Republican senators.
Boehner already has ruled out a House vote on the Senate bill and said whatever immigration legislation does pass must have the support of the majority of GOP House members.
The speaker is still devising a strategy, which lawmakers and advocates on both sides say could determine whether Congress can pass a bill this year.
Boehner is expected to hear opposition, some of it vehement, from his most conservative members to any bill that includes a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million people in the country illegally.
Excluding that route to eventual citizenship would be a deal-breaker, House Democrats said Tuesday after a caucus meeting addressed by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and other key sponsors of the Senate bill.
"Democrats would not accept anything short of a path to citizenship," said Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. And, he said, no bill can pass without Democrats' support.
Before the House Republican meeting, Obama will meet with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and in Dallas, former President George W. Bush will urge backing for an immigration overhaul at a citizenship ceremony at his presidential center.
Rep. Steve Israel (D-Huntington), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said the Senate bill would pass with 240 votes in the House if Boehner would let it come to the floor for a vote.
About 190 Democrats and somewhere between 40 and 50 Republicans would vote for it, according to most accounts.
But if Boehner allowed that vote, GOP conservatives would be likely to seek to oust him as House speaker, Israel said.
Only 21 Republicans are vulnerable to a Latino backlash next year at the polls if they vote against the immigration bill, Israel said, although Latino advocates put that figure at 44.
King predicted Boehner will take a piecemeal approach to immigration legislation, instead of tackling a comprehensive bill as the Senate did.
At the end, the bills could go to a conference committee of Senate and House members to craft a compromise bill, if conservatives allow that to occur.
The process is likely to begin with enforcement measures before moving to economic issues that could gain support in districts across the country.
"It's important to move forward what we can," King said. "And that would be security at the beginning of the process, then more visas for highly skilled workers and as the debate goes forward make the bill as comprehensive as we can. Then send it to conference and see what happens."