House Republicans huddled behind closed doors Wednesday in a long-awaited “special conference” to discuss tactics, air grievances and plot the way forward – or out of – the national debate over comprehensive immigration reform…

At the beginning of the meeting, House Speaker John Boehner reiterated that the House will not take up the “flawed” Senate-passed bill but urged some type of action. And Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, the high-profile former vice presidential nominee who supports the reform effort, presented an economic argument for immigration legislation and noted the nation’s declining birthrate without the influx of new residents, sources in the room said…

In a statement after the meeting, House Republican leaders said “this administration cannot be trusted to deliver on its promises to secure the border and enforce laws as part of a single, massive bill like the one passed by the Senate.”…

One type of immigration action could take the form of legislation to address those who were brought to the country illegally as children – or DREAMers – who have been among the most organized and sympathetic advocates for reform.

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Boehner “said we’d be in a much weaker position if we didn’t act,” according to Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.). “He clearly wants to act, thinks something needs to get done. Frankly, our principles are probably closer to where the American people are, but it’s incumbent upon us to act.”…

“The Speaker said that we’re going to have a majority of the conference for anything that goes over [to the Senate] or comes back [from conference],” a lawmaker at the meeting said.

“People were asking, ‘Well, can you guarantee me what’s going to come back from conference won’t be the Senate bill-light?’”

“[Boehner] said, ‘I can’t guarantee what’s going to come back from conference because it hasn’t happened yet, but I can guarantee that we’re going to have something a majority of the conference accepts,’” a lawmaker in the room told The Hill.

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A new Rasmussen Reports poll shows that only 39 percent of Americans want an immigration bill that cuts illegal immigration by only 50 percent from current levels as the Senate’s recently-passed “Gang of Eight” bill would do.

According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the Senate bill would only reduce illegal immigration by a maximum of 50 percent. “The immigration reform plan passed by the Senate would give legal status to those who have entered the country illegally and reduce future illegal immigration by 50%. Do you favor or oppose that plan?” survey respondents were asked. Only 39 percent of 1,000 likely voters sampled responded that they favored such a plan…

When asked three weeks ago whether they support giving legal status to America’s illegal aliens if the border were secured and laws were enforced, 60 percent of likely voters responded in the affirmative. Now, though, only 50 percent support such an idea.

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As we noted yesterday morning, if immigration reform has a pulse, it’s very weak. Shortly afterward, it became undetectable. The key moment came when Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) — the leading Democratic author of the Senate’s immigration bill — laid things out for House Speaker John Boehner.

“Without a path to citizenship, there is not going to be a bill,” he said. “There can’t be a bill.”…

Even if the House GOP pulls off the unthinkable and puts a bill on the floor that includes a citizenship component — even one that’s “triggered” — conservatives will recognize it as a feint. They’ll be convinced, perhaps correctly, that the Senate position will win the day in conference, and that they’ll be faced with a take-it-or-leave-it proposition once the bill is really, truly finalized.

So they’ll withhold support for that reason. And suddenly the bill will no longer be Hastert rule compliant.

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Jon Ward of the Huffington Post lays out how this needle could theoretically be threaded. It would involve replacing the Path to Citizenship which so alarms many House Republicans with something less, along the lines of Sen. Rand Paul’s “No New Path To Citizenship” proposal.

You can call it a Pathway to Legalization—unauthorized immigrants would get the right to stay in the country legally and could pursue citizenship if they become eligible through existing legal channels, but would not get a separately established right to apply for Permanent Resident status after 10 years…

A path to legalization without citizenship would satisfy the needs of Republican-aligned business interests, which just want to be able to hire immigrant workers. And it could calm worries among Republicans wary of granting citizenship to members of a likely Democratic voting block…

If House Republicans pass a bill with no path to citizenship, they’ll be able to accurately tell business interests that they passed legislation addressing their priorities, Hispanics that they voted for a bill that changes immigration in a way that substantially betters the lives of immigrants, and conservatives that they didn’t just roll over to Democratic priorities. The politics are drastically better than not passing anything at all.

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Conservative Latino leaders are starting to pick up this chorus as well, suggesting that there is a move afoot to coordinate support for it.

“What if they were to propose to legalize people under a guest worker program that doesn’t close the door to citizenship,” said Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles. “You could say, there’s still a path to citizenship, it’s just the normal path.”

“That could get the majority of the majority,” he added.

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Strikingly, wages are lower today than in 1999. Median household income has declined 8 percent. One in seven recent college graduates is unemployed. One in three Americans without a high-school diploma can’t find work. The Senate immigration bill — written by the White House, Democrat leadership and supported by the entire Democrat conference — sacrifices the economic interests of these Americans in deference to the politicians and business interest who want lower-cost labor.

If there is any lesson for the GOP to learn from 2012, it’s that we must do a better job fighting for and connecting with working Americans of all backgrounds — immigrant and native-born alike — whose wages have fallen and whose employment opportunities have increasingly diminished.

In pushing for this bill, the Left has abandoned and taken for granted the struggling worker. By doing the right thing on immigration, the GOP can distance our party from the corporate titans who believe the immigration policy for our entire country should be modeled to pad their bottom line.

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[I]t makes much more sense for the G.O.P. to think about its political problems in terms of class and economics rather than ethnicity, and for the party’s leaders to first attack its economic vulnerabilities — particularly the perception, often earned, that the party has nothing to offer wage-earning Americans — rather than starting with an issue, immigration, that has the potential to just highlight the G.O.P.’s disconnect from voter priorities, and confirm the impression that the party’s Wall Street wing calls all the shots. The core of the Lowry-Kristol thesis isn’t that the G.O.P. should necessarily resign itself to a Romney-esque performance among Hispanics in 2016 and beyond; it’s that a conservative party with an appealing, populist-inflected economic agenda will ultimately probably win more white votes and more Hispanic votes (and, for that matter, black votes and Asian votes) than a conservative party whose idea of rebranding is just a headlong rush to put President Obama’s signature on an immigration bill…

[M]uch of the energy in the immigration fight comes from factions within the Republican tent that regard the Rubio-Schumer bill as a brilliant-and-easy way to avoid any kind of broader rethinking on economics, and that are pressing immigration reform on their co-partisans as the only conceivable alternative to swift political extinction. This is the argument Lowry and Kristol are mostly pushing back against: No, they’re saying, there are other paths the party could take. And they’re right.

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“If you’re pandering, it’s going to be the side that panders the most that’s going to get the result,” Labrador continued. “We’re never going to out-pander the Democratic Party.”