WASHINGTON (AP) — Prospects for comprehensive immigration legislation this year grew murkier on the eve of an all-out push by a coalition of business, religious and law enforcement groups to convince the Republican-led House of Representatives to overhaul the decades-old system.
Proponents seized on two developments as a Senate-passed measure remains stalled in the House — President Barack Obama's meeting at the White House on Tuesday with a House Republican working on legislation and a California Republican lawmaker's willingness to back a House Democratic plan.
But in a blow to their effort, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio signaled support for the House Republican leadership's plan to take a piecemeal approach to immigration legislation despite his months of work and vote for the comprehensive Senate bill that would provide a path to citizenship for the 11 million immigrants living in the U.S. illegally and tighten border security.
The Florida Republican — the son of Cuban immigrants and a potential presidential candidate in 2016 — had provided crucial support for the bipartisan Senate bill.
"Sen. Rubio has always preferred solving immigration reform with piecemeal legislation. The Senate opted to pursue a comprehensive bill, and he joined that effort because he wanted to influence the policy that passed the Senate," Rubio's spokesman, Alex Conant, said Monday in explaining Rubio's backing for limited measures.
The senate bill's passage came months after President Barack Obama won about 70 percent of the Hispanic vote in the November 2012 presidential election. Some Republican senators expressed concern that the party's opposition to immigration reform could hurt future state-wide and national election prospects by alienating the rapidly growing Latino voting bloc.
But since 68 Democratic and Republican senators joined together to pass the Senate bill in June, opponents and many conservatives have stepped up their pressure against any immigration legislation, based not only on their opposition to a pathway to citizenship for immigrants living in the U.S. illegally but also their unwillingness to deliver on Obama's top second-term domestic agenda issue.
The recent budget fight only inflamed conservative Republican feelings toward Obama.
Obama on Monday reiterated his call for Congress to complete action on an immigration overhaul before the end of the year. He said that represented the only way to end the record deportations of immigrants undertaken by his administration, actions he has tried to curtail by allowing young people who immigrated illegally with their parents into the United States — so-called Dreamers — to remain in the country under certain conditions.
"That's why my top priority has been let's make sure that we comprehensively reform the whole system so that we're not just dealing with Dreamers, we're also dealing with anybody who's here and is undocumented," he said in an interview with Fusion, a cable channel that is a collaboration of ABC News and Spanish-language Univision.
Most House Republicans reject a comprehensive approach and many question offering citizenship to people who broke U.S. immigration laws to be in this country. The House Judiciary Committee has moved forward on a piecemeal basis with individual, single-issue immigration bills.
Although House Republican leaders say they want to solve the issue, which has become a political drag for the Republican Party, many rank-and-file House Republicans have shown little inclination to deal with it. With just a few legislative weeks left in the House, it's unclear whether lawmakers will vote on any measure before the year is out.
Among the exceptions are Republican Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida and Darrell Issa of California, who have been working on possible legislation.
Diaz-Balart has said his bill would help those immigrants here illegally to "get right with the law," purposely avoiding the word legalization that he said is interpreted differently in the fierce debate over immigration. Diaz-Balart is slated to meet with the president on Tuesday.
Determined to rally support, outside groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Bibles, Badges & Business for Immigration Reform are descending on the Capitol Tuesday to lobby lawmakers to vote this year on immigration legislation.
Separately, Rep. Jeff Denham of California became the first Republican to back the House Democratic bill. Denham represents a swing district in northern California northeast of San Jose. He won his seat in 2012 with 53 percent of the vote.
"I want to fix it, I want to fix it once for my generation, for my children's generation and a pathway to earned citizenship must be included in immigration reform legislation," Denham said on a conference call with reporters.
The Senate bill, strongly backed by the White House, includes billions of dollars for border security, a reworked legal immigration system to allow tens of thousands of high- and low-skilled workers into the country, and a 13-year path to citizenship for the 11 million immigrants already here illegally.
The bill from House Democrats jettisoned the border security provision and replaced it with the House Homeland panel's version. That billwould require the secretary of Homeland Security to develop a strategy to gain operational control of the border within five years and a plan to implement the strategy.
Associated Press writer Donna Cassata in Washington contributed to this report.