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Immigration reform: Is 'amnesty' a possibility now?

Congress seems primed to address immigration reform in 2013, and even a path to citizenship – which critics deride as 'amnesty' for illegals – may be on the table. The shift in the national conversation came suddenly. Here's why. 

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"This is like a wall that stops the other issues from getting through," says Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R) of Florida, a longtime immigration reform advocate. "And while that wall is there, the Republican Party has a serious problem."

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House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio signaled a shift when he told ABC News a day after the election that "a comprehensive approach [to immigration] is long overdue, and I'm confident that the president, myself, others, can find the common ground to take care of this issue once and for all."

That's a departure from previous immigration-reform attempts, in which the GOP brass wasn't on board.

Perhaps just as important, though, is that several leading lawmakers with near-pristine conservative credentials are also involved.

Two tea party superstars – Senators Rubio and Lee, both of whom knocked out establishment Republican figures to win their seats – are going to be key players in any reform.

In the House, the involvement of House Judiciary chairman Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R) of Virginia and Representative Labrador of Idaho can provide cover to conservative lawmakers from the party's right flank.

"The fact that you're going to have strong conservative voices helping lead this debate is going to be critical to solving it instead of using it as a political wedge," says Rep. Steve Scalise (R) of Louisiana, incoming chairman of the Republican Study Committee, the largest and most conservative caucus in the House.

It's notable that both Labrador and Rubio believe in, one way or another, a path to citizenship for some illegal immigrants, even while they leave open just who can get on that path.

Some conservatives say any form of citizenship given to illegal immigrants – no matter the conditions attached to it – constitutes an "amnesty," which is a guarantee only of more illegal immigration unless the nation's borders are firmly secured and stringent workplace verification systems are put in place.

But a recent poll by George Washington University and Politico found 62 percent of Americans support a proposal that would allow illegal immigrants to earn citizenship over a period of several years, with 40 percent strongly supporting such a measure. Only 35 percent opposed it.

Some Democrats on the Hill are extending a friendly hand to the GOP. When the Congressional Hispanic Caucus – which is entirely Democratic – offered its vision for immigration reform, for example, it served up principles rather than a specific bill, a move received by Republicans as attempting to maximize common ground.

But Democrats also know they are in a position of power.

"You've got a realization on the part of GOP leadership not just in the House but in the Republican Party writ large that if they don't do something about it, they aren't going to win the presidency again," says Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D) of California, a leading immigration reform advocate.

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