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House Gears Up For Immigration Battle

With immigration expected to be a top issue in the new Congress, lawmakers in both parties continue to call for a bipartisan approach — while also preparing for battle.

The messaging from many House Democrats and Republicans about the chances of passing an immigration overhaul remains optimistic. And some of them, such as Republican Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida and Democrat Zoe Lofgren of California, have begun to meet privately.

But other moves indicate that lawmakers are hedging their bets and girding for a fight.

Meanwhile, both sides are waiting to gauge President Obama's involvement after he campaigned last year on a pledge to deliver immigration reform. His administration recently announced another change to its immigration policy that will allow some illegal immigrants married to U.S. citizens to stay longer before returning to their countries to apply for permanent American visas.

The Republican leadership has installed a pair of immigration hawks to chair the House Judiciary Committee and its subcommittee that would be charged with drafting any immigration bills. In an apparent countermove, a veteran Democrat has given up his seniority on the coveted Financial Services Committee to join the judiciary panel and help push through possible reforms.

Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., the new House Judiciary Committee chairman, is a former immigration attorney who has taken a hard line against Democratic proposals, many of which he has regarded as amnesty. He opposes the Obama administration's policy changes, including its deferred deportation program that provides a two-year reprieve to qualified young people brought to the United States illegally as children.

Any hearings would be presided over by conservative Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., the new chairman of the subcommittee on immigration and border security. Gowdy holds many of the same positions as Goodlatte, including opposition to the Obama policies.

Has the Republicans' post-election embrace of an immigration overhaul worn off?

Maybe not. Gowdy, who just began his second term, recently told a South Carolina newspaper that he wants to come up with a bill that reflects "the humanity that I think defines us as a people, and the respect for the rule of law that defines us as a republic."

Gowdy dismissed the notion embraced by some conservatives that the nation should deport the estimated 11 million or more immigrants illegally living in the U.S. But he didn't indicate whether he would support Democratic principles such as offering a path to citizenship.

He said any legislation would have to reinforce the nation's borders and order the deportation of lawbreakers to gain the needed support of conservative lawmakers. Many Democrats, including leading Latino lawmakers, have said they would agree to such requirements.

Goodlatte and Gowdy will have to contend with Democratic Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., who took leave from the House Financial Services Committee to be a junior member of the Judiciary Committee and help that panel draft immigration legislation. Immigration overhaul has been the signature issue of Gutierrez's two decades in Congress.

"I felt I must be on the Judiciary Committee during this Congress to help the others on the committee get immigration reform to the finish line," Gutierrez said in a statement. "We can't wait and wait and wait for immigration reform, and I am finding an enthusiasm for action that I have not seen on Capitol Hill for years."

Copyright 2013 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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