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Immigration, Debt Ceiling Take Center Stage at GOP Retreat

When President Barack Obama called on Congress to pass an immigration rewrite this year at Tuesday night's State of the Union address, House Republican leaders responded with applause and ovation.  

Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio clapped from the dais while Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of California joined him from the House floor. Budget Chairman Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin jumped to his feet just a few seats away.  

But by and large, members of the House Republican Conference in attendance remained seated and stoic, un-enthused at the prospect of undertaking the politically perilous immigration overhaul during an election year, or at all.  

As Republicans head to their annual three-day retreat, the challenge for leadership is to ensure that if the team chooses to rise in favor of immigration changes on the House floor again later this year, their conference follows. What remains unclear is whether leadership has a solid strategy to round up the support. Boehner will unveil a one-sheet document this week laying out principles for the rewrite, but most members have not seen it and some acknowledge it may be rejected outright.  

Similarly, the conference is undecided on whether to fight or flee on a hike to the nation's borrowing limit, which they must pass next month. The topic will be given equal heft at the retreat, which started Wednesday in Cambridge, Md.  

On immigration, the biggest challenge is to figure out how to legalize the status of the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country. Ryan indicated in an interview with CBS News on Tuesday that there is hope for a measure passing the House.  

"Some like a probationary status, where they have to go through acknowledging that they broke the law and make amends with that. Whether it's paying back taxes, fines, learning English, learning civics, making sure that they do things to make amends with the fact that they did not follow our law," he said.  

Yet leaders are struggling against a sense in the conference that taking on the overhaul is simply a bad idea this year. Chief among the reasons against is that it is an election year and many Republicans are afraid of drawing a primary challenge if they support the policy. That view has been espoused by members of GOP leadership, such as Rep. James Lankford of Oklahoma, and proponents of a rewrite, such as Rep. John Carter of Texas, who had been involved in bipartisan talks to craft comprehensive legislation.  

Some Republicans do not trust that the outcome will skew in their favor. At a gathering of the conservative Republican Study Committee on Tuesday, Rep. Mick Mulvaney, who has stated that he generally supports an immigration rewrite, told the group that they should be wary of sending bills to the Senate, where they can be conferenced and sent back to the House as policy Republicans do not support. As an example, he pointed to the farm bill. He voted for the House version before voting against the conference report on Wednesday .  

“If the new normal is going to be that we pass really good House bills but get killed in conference, I think it does raise legitimate questions about whether or not we should go to conference” on immigration, he said.  

If the path of the farm bill is precedent, though, Republican leaders may be hopeful. It passed Wednesday with 162 Republicans in support, despite calls to vote it down from conservative outside groups such as Heritage Action for America.  

But staunch opponents of an immigration rewrite have signaled they will ramp up their pressure as overhaul efforts intensify. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, said Tuesday night that if leaders decide to pursue the legislationafter the retreat, he will become even more vocal on the issue.  

"We can have the discussion inside the room, and we can have the discussion outside the room," he said.  

Views are varied on how to approach the debt limit, as well. Republican leaders have noted several demands, but have yet to coalesce around one. In the CBS News interview, Ryan noted the conference may ask the Senate to pass legislation to create jobs, a broad category of Republican bills that include anti-regulatory, energy and other legislation.  

Cantor told CNBC in an interview earlier this month that the conference may push the president to approve the stalled Keystone XL oil pipeline project or ease regulations on natural gas production.  

Others in the conference have cited demands to do away with a portion of the Affordable Care Act called "risk corridors," which reimburses insurance companies in some cases to avoid premium hikes.  

But Senate Budget Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., took to the Senate floor Wednesday to tell Republicans that the Senate will refuse to negotiate.  

“Republican leaders ... seem unable to stop playing silly games with this issue to make the tea party happy," she said. “So let me be very clear: Democrats aren’t going to negotiate over whether or not the government should pay its bills. And if Republicans continue down this path of empty threats and dangerous demands, they will get exactly what they got the last time they tried to play politics with our economic recovery: nothing."  

Last year, the conference headed into its retreat unsure of what to demand and emerged with a plan to force the Senate to pass a budget in exchange for a debt limit hike.  

Much like last year, the conference has no clue which way to go on the matter heading into this retreat, said Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, who was instrumental in crafting last year's plan.  

"We don't know," he said. "I think it's all going to get hashed out here in the next couple of weeks."  

Matt Fuller contributed to this report.