House Republicans took a tentative step toward offering citizenship to some unauthorized immigrants Tuesday, but hit an immediate wall of resistance from the White House on down as Democrats said it wasn't enough.
The dismissive reaction to the Republican proposal to offer eventual citizenship to some immigrants brought illegally to the U.S. as children underscored the difficulties of finding any compromise in the Republican-led House of Representatives on the politically explosive issue of immigration.
That left prospects cloudy for one of President Barack Obama's top second-term priorities. Congress is preparing to break for a monthlong summer recess at the end of next week without action in the full House on any immigration legislation, even after the Senate passed a sweeping bipartisan bill last month to secure the borders and create a path to citizenship for the 11 million immigrants already in the country illegally.
At a hearing of the House Judiciary immigration subcommittee Tuesday on how to deal with immigrants brought here illegally as children, Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte suggested that "we as a nation should allow this group of young people to stay in the U.S. legally." House Republican leaders have embraced offering citizenship to such immigrants, and Goodlatte is working on a bill with Majority Leader Eric Cantor toward the goal.
It is something of a turnaround for Republicans, many of whom in the past have opposed legalizing immigrants brought here as children. And some Democrats and immigration advocates said it was a welcome development showing that Republicans have moved forward since nominating a presidential candidate last year, Mitt Romney, who suggested that people here illegally should "self-deport."
Obama won about 70 percent of the Hispanic vote in the November election. A sizable minority of Senate Republicans supported the bipartisan immigration reform bill, raising concerns that their party might suffer setbacks in future national elections if it continued to snub the growing Latino demographic group.
Even before Tuesday's hearing began Democrats dismissed Goodlatte and Cantor's not-yet-released legislation, saying that any solution that doesn't offer citizenship to all 11 million immigrants here illegally falls short.
Over Twitter, White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer slammed "the cruel hypocrisy of the GOP immigration plan: allow some kids to stay but deport their parents."
That drew an angry response from Republican Rep. Trey Gowdy, who chairs the immigration subcommittee. After reading Pfeiffer's tweet aloud at the hearing, Gowdy labeled Pfeiffer "a demagogic, self-serving, political hack."
Cantor spokesman Rory Cooper also responded to Pfeiffer, asking over Twitter: "If White House opposes effort to give children path to staying in only country they know, how serious are they about immigration reform?"
In fact, Democrats and immigration advocates pushed hard in past years for legislation offering citizenship to immigrants brought as youths. The so-called DREAM Act passed the House in 2010 when it was controlled by Democrats, but was blocked by Senate Republicans.
But now, with a comprehensive solution like the one passed by the Senate in sight, Democrats and outside activists say they won't settle for anything less.
"Legalizing only the DREAMers is not enough," said Rep. Luis Gutierrez, who is a leading Democratic advocate for immigration reform in the House.. "I cannot imagine for one minute that Republicans, who also honor the sanctity of families, want to legalize the children, but leave the rest of the family vulnerable."
Some Democrats and outside advocates also contended that Republicans were advancing a politically attractive measure just to give themselves cover to avoid dealing with all the immigrants here illegally. They noted that as recently as June the House's Republican majority voted to overturn an Obama administration policy halting deportations of some immigrants brought to the U.S. as youths — a policy put in place by executive order after Congress failed to pass the DREAM Act.
"Don't be fooled. This is not about the DREAM Act. It's about politics and the Republicans' attempt to make it look like they are taking immigration reform seriously," said a statement from the Fair Immigration Reform Movement.
Republicans warned that such opposition could backfire.
"Attempts to group the entire 11 million into one homogenous group in an effort to secure a political remedy will only wind up hurting the most vulnerable," said Gowdy.
Cantor and Goodlatte have not released details of their legislation, but it is likely to be narrower in scope than the DREAM Act, which would have offered legal status to people under age 35 who arrived in the U.S. before age 16 and had lived here for five years and obtained a high school diploma. Slightly more than 2.1 million immigrants could have qualified, according to an analysis by the Migration Policy Institute.
A series of Republican lawmakers voiced support at Tuesday's hearing for some solution for immigrants brought illegally as kids. But the sentiment was not universal.
Republican Rep. Steve King, a leading immigration hardliner, said such an approach would amount to a "backdoor amnesty" that would "sacrifice the rule of law on the altar of political expediency."
King also came under attack for comments he made to the conservative news website Newsmax last week, where he downplayed the idea that many unauthorized immigrant youth are high-achieving. "For everyone who's a valedictorian, there's another 100 out there that weigh 130 pounds and they've got calves the size of cantaloupes because they're hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert," King said.
Democratic Rep. Joe Garcia told King that such language is "offensive and it is beneath the dignity of this body and this country."
"What he said is wrong," House Speaker John Boehner, said of King's remarks.
"There can be honest disagreements about policy without using hateful language," Boehner said in an emailed statement. "Everyone needs to remember that."
Earlier Tuesday, Boehner insisted that though House Republicans have rejected the Senate bill, they were committed to dealing with immigration and they just wanted to do it in a step-by-step, deliberate fashion.