US House Speaker John Boehner gathered his congressional Republicans Thursday to debate the party's future, saying the time had come for his party to help pass immigration reform.
Secluded at a bayside hotel on Maryland's Eastern Shore for a three-day closed-door retreat, the House of Representatives' majority party was thrashing out policy principles, guidelines for the 2014 mid-term election campaign, and ways to find common ground with President Barack Obama.
But the debate on immigration reform was front and center, after Republican aides signalled this week that party leaders were circulating policy proposals that included a pathway to legal status -- but not citizenship -- for many of the 11 million people living in the shadows.
"This problem has been around for at least the last 15 years. It's been turned into a political football," Boehner told reporters on the sidelines of the closed-door sessions.
"I think it's unfair, so I think it's time to deal with it. But how you deal with it is going to be critically important."
Republican leaders have acknowledged the need for reform, citing the party's low support among a growing Hispanic community.
But they have stressed they will proceed piecemeal rather than allowing a single grand reform bill to pass, while passing separate laws to address issues like improving border security.
"Doing immigration reform in a common-sense step-by-step manner helps our members understand the bite-sized pieces. And it helps our constituents build more confidence that what we're doing makes sense," Boehner added.
He would not be drawn on whether the proposals address the critical legalization-versus-citizenship issue.
"We're going to talk to our members today about the principles that the leadership team has put together," he said. "I'm not going to get out any further."
Leadership is sensitive to concerns raised by party conservatives that legalizing undocumented immigrants is akin to amnesty.
After Obama's State of the Union address, conservative Republican Steve King said he would be leaning hard on members at the retreat against backing a pathway to citizenship or legalization.
"If we set up people to say 'we're going to legalize you but you'll never get a path to citizenship,' then there are two classes of people in this country. That's a bad idea."
Last year's landmark bipartisan Senate bill offered the most comprehensive immigration overhaul in a generation, boosting border security, reforming visa rules and providing a 13-year pathway to citizenship for millions.
But the Republican-led House refused to take it up, despite calls from some business groups, which lean Republican but support immigration reform as a way to boost the economy.
Also on Thursday the Republican leadership wrote Obama saying they were ready to "come together" with the president and his Democrats on legislation addressing skills training, natural gas production and federally funded research.
The leaders made no mention of immigration in their letter.