WASHINGTON (AP) -- A leader of House Republican moderates said Thursday that a tentative deal with conservatives was being discussed to help young "Dreamer" immigrants stay in the U.S. legally. Conservatives said later that no agreement has been reached, underscoring how elusive it has been for the GOP to resolve its long-running schism over the issue.
The proposal was described the same day that House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said leaders will craft an attempt at compromise on the issue that Republicans could embrace and vote on soon. Ryan is hoping an accord would derail threats by the GOP centrists to force a series of votes on immigration this month that leaders say would be divisive and damage the party's electoral prospects in November.
The flurry underscored the escalating pressure Republicans face to address immigration, an issue pitting centrists representing Hispanic and moderate voters against conservatives with deep-red constituents sympathetic to President Donald Trump's anti-immigrant outbursts. Painfully aware of those divisions, leaders had seemed happy to sidestep the issue until the moderates' rebellion forced their hand.
Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., said that under an offer from the hard-right House Freedom Caucus, young immigrants brought illegally to the U.S. as children could get a new visa that would let them stay in the country for eight years. He expressed uncertainty over what would happen after that, but said participants have characterized the proposal as a bridge to the legal immigration system — which suggests a pathway to remaining in the U.S. permanently.
"This was their offer to us and it's something we can agree to, but not until we see it on paper," Denham said.
Members of the Freedom Caucus distanced themselves from the moderates' assertions, though their descriptions varied.
Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., leader of the Freedom Caucus, said no immigration agreement has been reached and said the question of granting citizenship to Dreamers "has been the thorniest issue from the start." Another member of that group, Rep. Dave Brat, R-Va., said a proposal has been discussed but cautioned that there are "tons of moving pieces to it." And in a tweet, the Caucus said it has "not made an offer on immigration" but said talks continued.
Conservatives have been adamant about not providing a "special" process carving out a unique way for Dreamers to gain legal status, and some of them bristled at Denham's narrower description. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla., Denham's fellow moderate leader, said that while talks have focused on providing legal status to Dreamers, the proposal "does not involve a special pathway nor a visa unique to any specific group."
Denham said that without a deal, the moderates' threat to force the House to consider four immigration bills remains in effect. He and Curbelo need two more GOP signatures on a petition that could force those votes, assuming all Democrats sign. If they get them by next Tuesday, the House would be on track to have those roll calls on June 25.
"We have a firm deadline of next Tuesday," Denham said. "We're prepared to have the final signatures if there's no agreement between now and then."
The moderates would force votes on bills ranging from liberal plans offering citizenship to Dreamers to a conservative proposal curbing legal immigration. GOP leaders and conservatives say the likely result would be left-leaning legislation that would never clear the Senate or get President Donald Trump's signature. They also say it would antagonize conservative voters, jeopardizing GOP turnout in November elections in which control of the House is at stake.
Denham said moderates would accept border security measures as part of the accord, including backing the full $25 billion Trump wants to construct his proposed wall with Mexico. He also said the plan would apply to more than the nearly 700,000 people who have been protected by the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, that Trump has halted. Around another 1 million immigrants are thought to have qualified for that program but not applied, by some estimates.
Ryan described leaders' effort to find compromise after a meeting of all House GOP lawmakers that didn't resolve the party's divisions. He said leaders would work toward a draft that resembles Trump's demands on the issue.
"This effort to get our members to come to a common ground is the best chance at law," Ryan said.
In exchange for providing possible citizenship for Dreamers, Trump wants full financing for his wall with Mexico. He's also wanted to end a lottery that distributes about 50,000 visas annually to countries with few U.S. immigrants and to limit the relatives legal immigrants can bring to this country.
Democrats and many moderate Republicans have opposed curbs in legal immigration. Such a plan would seem to have no chance in the Senate, where Democrats have enough votes to block it.
Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C., said conservatives have discussed providing a pathway to citizenship to Dreamers in exchange for funding for the proposed border wall, ending the visa lottery and limiting the relatives immigrants can bring into the country. Walker said the more Dreamers given an opportunity for citizenship, the tighter curbs on family-based migration would be.