WASHINGTON - House Speaker John Boehner said Thursday the "vast majority" of House Republicans believe they need to deal with immigration, but that they'll take a methodical, step-by-step approach and won't be held to any deadlines.
Legislation to secure the border and enforce immigration laws will come first, Boehner said. As for whether the House could ever agree to provide legal status or a path to citizenship for the 11 million immigrants already in the country illegally, "Well, we're going to find out," Boehner said.
"Through all the conversations that have occurred, with my own members, with Democrat members, it's clear that dealing with this in bite-sized chunks that members can digest and the American people can digest is the smartest way to go," said Boehner, R-Ohio. "And so I'm much more concerned about doing it right than I am in meeting some deadline."
The Ohio Republican spoke at a news conference Thursday, a day after House GOP members met to hash out their way forward on immigration.
They emerged with a consensus on dealing with border security first and moving legislation in pieces, in contrast to the sweeping bill passed last month by the Senate on a bipartisan 68 to 32 vote. What to do about the millions already here illegally remained unanswered.
With Democrats insisting on a path to citizenship, that left it unclear whether Congress will be able to get any kind of immigration bill to President Obama's desk. The issue is one of the president's top second-term priorities.
At the White House Thursday, Obama met with two of the lead authors of the Senate bill, Democrat Chuck Schumer of New York and Republican John McCain of Arizona.
Despite the uncertainty, Schumer and McCain both expressed optimism about where things stand in the House.
"The caucus sent out a message yesterday, which was the right message, which is, doing nothing is not an option," Schumer said.
Obama took a largely behind-the-scenes role as the bill moved through the Senate, and McCain suggested it could be a mistake for him to mount a more public campaign in support of immigration reform as the House takes it up.
"We want to be very careful that we have the president's participation but these members, these Republican House members - many of them are in districts that they will be representing for a long time - do not feel that they have been unduly pressured by the president of the United States," McCain said. "So I think the president is walking a careful line here, and I think it's the appropriate one."
"Through all the conversations that have occurred, with my own members, with Democrat members, it's clear that dealing with this in bite-sized chunks that members can digest and the American people can digest is the smartest way to go."
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio