WASHINGTON -- Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) on Tuesday downplayed the notion that a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants would serve as a major obstacle to passing comprehensive immigration reform, arguing that bipartisan support for a pathway is greater today than it was during previous failed efforts to address the issue.
"There's greater consensus on the issue of citizenship," Gutierrez, one of the leading advocates for immigration reform, told reporters at a breakfast roundtable hosted by the Christian Science Monitor.
Gutierrez pointed to a speech delivered by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) on Tuesday, in which he emphasized the need to find a place for undocumented immigrants -- comments that signaled a dramatic shift from his previous position.
"I think the conversation needs to start by acknowledging we aren't going to deport 12 million illegal immigrants," Paul said in his remarks. "If you wish to work, if you wish to live and work in America, then we will find a place for you."
Gutierrez argued that those comments, coupled with Sen. Marco Rubio's (R-Fla.) support for a pathway, are reflective of the GOP's evolving position on the subject. He added that he has heard similar statements from House Republicans.
"I have spoken with Republicans, including Paul Ryan and Raul Labrador and Mario Diaz-Balart, and they and I understand that we should not [create] a permanent non-citizen underclass," he said. "I think they agree with me and many of the leading Republicans also agree."
Gutierrez said Ryan, for example, told him their shared Catholic faith "cannot allow us to create a permanent underclass."
Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, isn't directly involved in immigration reform efforts in Congress -- but Gutierrez's point had more to do with how the willingness of powerful Republicans to embrace a pathway to citizenship could influence the skeptics in the party.
The most powerful Republican in Congress, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), praised the bipartisan House immigration plan later Tuesday, furthering Gutierrez's point that GOP opposition to a pathway has cooled. Boehner didn't specifically mention the pathway component of the plan, but he said the tentative proposal is "frankly a pretty responsible solution."
The Illinois Democrat, who is part of a bipartisan group working on an immigration reform bill in the House, also expressed confidence that the Senate will have the 60 votes necessary to advance any legislation produced by the so-called Gang of Eight leading the immigration effort in the upper chamber.
And although Gutierrez acknowledged that it won't be easy to procure 218 votes in the House, he underscored, as many have, that there is momentum to get something done following the 2012 election.
He also argued that no single party would be responsible for holding up the process. While Republican leaders still need to sell their members on a pathway, Democrats need to resolve the "thorny issue" of a guest worker program, Gutierrez said.
"I think we all need to grow, and we all need to expand, and we all need to change, and we all need to ameliorate somewhat our positions in order to get this done," he said.