WASHINGTON (AP) - Democrats doggedly pursuing a far-reaching immigration bill are counting on help from Republican Rep. Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney's running mate last year and an unlikely candidate for delivering the centerpiece of President Barack Obama's second-term agenda.
Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman who is frequently mentioned in the GOP lineup of possible 2016 presidential candidates, stands apart from many fellow House Republicans in favoring a way out of the shadows for the 11 million immigrants living in the U.S. in violation of the law.
"Paul Ryan says we cannot have a permanent underclass of Americans, that there needs to be a pathway to citizenship," says Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., who has been working relentlessly on immigration legislation. "He is my guiding light. I know I get him in trouble every time I say it."
Senior White House aides often mention the Wisconsin Republican as crucial to the prospects for legislation this year, hoping the Republican with impeccable conservative credentials will sway recalcitrant House members. Ryan also is a reminder of two other powerful forces backing an overhaul of immigration laws - the Catholic Church and business.
Ryan is a practicing Catholic who made a point of attending Mass every Sunday during the jam-packed 2012 campaign; the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops strongly favors the first major changes to immigration in 27 years.
Ryan also represents a southeast Wisconsin district in a state that relies on the manufacturers of Waukesha engines, Kohler generators and numerous supply chains. The companies are counting on immigrants to fill future factory jobs.
"The American economy needs immigration reform, certainly the Wisconsin economy does," said Kurt Bauer, the president and CEO of Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the state's chamber of commerce.
Ryan says any immigration legislation has to address the question of the 11 million living in the U.S. unlawfully. Improving border security alone is not enough. "You can't fix the system, in my opinion, this is my personal opinion, without coming up with a viable solution for the undocumented and it's got to be a solution that respects the rule of law, that doesn't grant amnesty, that respects the person who came legally from the beginning by making sure that those who are undocumented go to the back of the line, and I think we can come up with that," he said.
But House Republicans in gerrymandered districts with few Hispanic voters have shown little inclination for addressing a path to citizenship, let alone an urgency to deal with immigration at all. Forces of personalities - Republicans Marco Rubio and John McCain and Democrat Chuck Schumer - helped steer a comprehensive bill to passage in the Senate on a strong, bipartisan vote of 68-32.
The House, which has adopted a piecemeal approach, is unlikely to consider any legislation before the August break, a timetable that raises doubts of any immigration legislation passing Congress this year.
Ryan is undeterred. He is working away from the spotlight, staying in contact with the bipartisan "Gang of Seven" House lawmakers trying to craft a bill. He doesn't see himself in a high-profile role like Rubio, arguing it's an approach that doesn't work in the House.
"There are lots of different pockets of parties here in the House. And I've always believed from passing budgets and other big pieces of legislation that listening to members, talking with members, negotiating is the most effective way of getting things over the finish line," he said in a recent interview. "It's kind of more of a workhorse role than a show horse role only because I just find that's the most effective way of getting things through the House."
Proponents of immigration legislation are pressing to get the House to back an overhaul bill. Senators this week identified 121 House Republicans seen as persuadable in favor of a bill, and Ryan was on the list.
Associated Press writer Jim Kuhnhenn contributed to this report.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.