On the first day of a House Republican retreat designed to unify the GOP caucus around a message for the 2014 election year, House Speaker John Boehner unveiled a framework for immigration reform that could tear the caucus apart if members cannot agree on the scope and timing of the controversial proposal that has roiled Republicans for decades.  

Boehner said as much when he addressed reporters Thursday morning. “This problem’s been around for at least the last 15 years. It’s been turned into a political football. I think it’s unfair,” Boehner said. “I think it’s time to deal with it. But how we deal with it is going to be critically important.”  

The issue pits conservative House members, most of whom have few Latinos in their heavily Republican districts, against national GOP leaders and state-wide office holders who are urging the party to be more inclusive of Hispanics, who make up the country’s fastest-growing demographic.

“This is something that clearly is more of a legacy issue for Republican leaders in the House than it is a maneuver for political protection in 2014,” said David Wasserman, House editor for the Cook Political Report. “No leader wants to be remembered as the head of a ‘Do-nothing Congress.’  And at the same time these leaders know that their party is unlikely to be a broad, big-tent party if it does not address immigration.”

Included in Boehner’s one-page set of “immigration principles” are a call to further secure American borders, create a guest-worker program, modernize visa tracking and employment verification, and grant citizenship to undocumented children brought to the U.S. as minors. The most controversial principle would allow millions of unauthorized immigrants to “come forward and get right with the law” with a path to legalization, but not “a special path to citizenship.”  

A path to citizenship was a key piece of the Senate-passed comprehensive immigration-reform bill embraced by labor and business leaders, but Boehner’s caucus made it clear to the speaker that a similar proposal would not pass the House.

Even with the scaled-back legalization language, conservative activists blasted the principles moments after they became public Thursday afternoon.  Powerline blog  called the proposal “a Death Warrant for Conservatism,” while Dan Holler, communications director for Heritage Action, called the document “a full-throated embrace of amnesty.”

“The fact that people who are here illegally are immediately allowed to reside here legally gives them a huge leg up over people trying to do things the right way,” Holler told The Daily Beast.  

Anticipating heat from the right, top Republicans have suggested holding off on House action until after filing deadlines and even primaries passed, a delay that would let sitting Republican members wait until after they have faced conservative primary voters at home.  

“It’s probably months out,” said Rep. Greg Walden, the chairman of the House GOP election efforts, on the timing of a House immigration vote. “The point would be most of the primaries would’ve faded by then anyway. By the time you get to June, most of them are behind you.”

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