WASHINGTON - Divided on immigration, House Republicans bluntly challenged President Obama's willingness to secure the nation's borders on Wednesday, and appeared unimpressed by George W. Bush's advice to carry a "benevolent spirit" into a debate that includes a possible path to citizenship for millions.
Emerging from a closed-door meeting, GOP leaders affirmed a step-by-step approach to immigration but offered neither specifics nor a timetable - nor any mention of possible citizenship for an estimated 11 million immigrants living in the country unlawfully.
Instead, in a written statement noting that the White House recently delayed a key part of the health-care law, Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and other leaders said the action raised concerns that the 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."
Lawmakers streaming out of the two-hour meeting said Bush's long-distance advice had not come up in a discussion that focused instead on the importance of securing the nation's borders and a general distrust of Obama.
The former president's ability to sway a new generation of House conservatives was a matter of considerable doubt, especially because many of the tea-party-backed lawmakers have risen to power since he left the White House and are strongly on record in opposition to any citizenship provision.
"We care what people back home say, not what some former president says," declared Rep. Tim Huelskamp, a second-term Kansas Republican who has clashed with the party leadership in the House.
Still, the timing and substance of Bush's remarks were reminders of the imperative that many national party leaders feel that Republicans must broaden their appeal among Hispanic voters to compete successfully in future presidential elections. President Obama took more than 70 percent of their votes in winning a second term last fall.
"America can be a lawful society and a welcoming society at the same time," Bush said at a naturalization ceremony at his presidential library in Dallas.
For their part, Democrats quickly embraced the former president's message, challenging House Speaker John Boehner to proceed in the same spirit.
The meeting in the Capitol was arranged as a listening session for the House GOP, their first such meeting since the Senate approved sweeping legislation last month on a bipartisan vote of 68-32.
"We care what people back home say, not what some former president says."
Rep. Tim Huelskamp,