CAMBRIDGE, Md.—They've been whispering it for weeks: House Republicans intended to use this year's policy retreat to come up with a "statement of principles" on immigration reform. Restrictionists, who were confident that the momentum for a bill had been broken by the House, have grown nervous. Does the GOP, which can easily hold the House in 2014 and win Senate seats in red states, really intend to pass an immigration bill?
Sounds likely. "Day after the 2012 election, I said it's time for Congress and president to deal with this very important issue," said John Boehner at a morning press conference. "I think it's time to deal with it."
Not long after Boehner spoke, Oregon Rep. Greg Walden went to the mics to discuss the party's strategy for holding the House and seizing more Democratic seats. The first question for the National Republican Congressional Committee chairman was about immigration.
"Speaker Boehner and others have made it pretty clear, and I'd concur with this, that it's a federal issue that needs a federal solution," said Walden. "I think you'll see our conference move forward with an approach that's transparent, an approach that requires security on the border."
Walden, who represents the largely rural eastern part of Oregon, started talking about the plight of farmers who need to hire cheap labor. "I have agricultural workers, employers, farmers, none of whom are acting in a legal manner right now," he said. "There was a huge labor shortage this year, and it's only getting worse. We have an unmet labor need. What we need is a legal system that makes both the worker and the employer legal. It doesn't mean that all the people who come here to work need to become citizens of the United States."
But what would this mean for nervous House incumbents, who might face primary challengers? "My hunch is that it doesn't come up tomorrow," said Walden, referring to a reform bill. "It's probably months out. The point is that most of the primaries will have faded by then anyway. By the time you get to June, most of them are behind you."
On his way back to the conference, Walden stopped for a few media interviews. He talked on camera with Fox News—then with Telemundo. "Not everybody that comes here wants citizenship," he told the Spanish-speaking network's reporter, hinting at a bill. "It's something we've got to take up and work on." Republicans wanted "a process people can have faith in."
When that interview wrapped, a conservative reporter asked Walden why there was such interest in passing an immigration bill, given that it didn't rank high in the polls of congressional priorities. "There are a lot of issues like that," Walden said. "Patent reform doesn't exactly show up, but it's still an issue that matters, that you need to deal with."
That was almost it for the NRCC chairman, but I followed up on one point. Did he, as campaign chief, worry that parts of the Republican base would bolt if an immigration bill passed?
"It depends on how the process moves forward," he said, "but I think you have that potential on any issue we deal with. There are gonna be people who still aren't going be happy. You get it on the left, you get it on the right."