WASHINGTON (AP) — Conservatives and the nation's biggest business lobby sparred Wednesday over immigration overhaul, with advocates vowing a renewed effort to get the House to act this year and opponents digging in against anything that shifts the political spotlight from President Barack Obama's troubled health care law.
The latest skirmish came as proponents raised expectations of congressional action on the contentious issue, seizing on any glimmer of positive developments. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, told rank-and-file Republicans in a closed-door session that he would soon outline party principles on the issue, which could serve as a precursor to legislation.
One of the GOP's crucial backers on many policies, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, promised to "pull out all the stops" to get legislation done.
"We're determined to make 2014 the year that immigration reform is finally enacted," Tom Donohue, president of the Chamber of Commerce, said in his State of American Business address. He said the organization would engage in grassroots lobbying, communications and partnership with unions, similar to what it did to secure a bipartisan bill in the Senate last year.
Later, in a news conference, Donohue said the chamber had received a "very positive response" in the House on immigration.
Opposition remains steadfast in the House, with several Republicans unwilling to give Obama one of his top second-term priorities.
More than a dozen conservative House Republicans on Wednesday signed a letter to Obama arguing that the immigration overhaul he supports would increase the number of guest workers and give work permits and permanent residency to 30 million immigrants over the next 10 years, forcing a reduction in wages and hurting American workers.
"So-called comprehensive immigration reform may be a good deal for big businesses who want to reduce labor costs, and it may be a good deal for progressive labor unions seeking new workers from abroad, but it's an awful deal for U.S. workers - including African-American and Hispanic communities enduring chronically high unemployment," the letter states. It was spearheaded by Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala.
Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, a chief foe of comprehensive immigration overhaul, said the issue would divide the GOP caucus and shift the focus from what he called the "calamity" of the health care law.
Republicans sense an election-year lift in the problem-plagued rollout of the health care law, highlighting reports of canceled policies, higher premiums and other troubles. Republicans are looking to tighten their grip on the House and seize control of the Senate in November's midterm elections.
"It would be a colossal mistake for us to take up anything that just ends up changing the subject and getting it off Obamacare and splitting the Republican Party," King said after the closed-door session.
King said Obama and the Democrats "want to debate immigration, they want to debate unemployment, they want to debate minimum wage," and Republicans should be wary of any diversion from health care.
The Senate last year passed a comprehensive, bipartisan bill that addressed border security, provided enforcement measures and offered a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million immigrants living in the United States illegally. House leaders, pressed by tea party conservatives, demanded a more limited and piecemeal approach.
The House Judiciary Committee has approved piecemeal bills, but they have languished since the summer despite intense pressure from a diverse coalition of religious groups, business led by the Chamber of Commerce, labor unions and immigration advocates.
Although House Republican leaders say they want to resolve the issue, which has become a political drag for the GOP, many rank-and-file Republicans have shown little inclination to deal with immigration. Many argue that a path to citizenship for those here illegally amounts to amnesty.
A House Republican retreat later this month could help GOP leaders devise a strategy. Some Republicans and Democrats say Boehner could wait until after the filing deadlines for 2014 primary elections, thus protecting some incumbents from tea party or other conservative challenges. That would mean no meaningful votes until after April.
Associated Press writer Jim Kuhnhenn contributed to this report.