Recently the intrepid Greg Sargent has done everything short of bringing out the hand puppets to show House Republicans how they can achieve a compromise on immigration reform that doesn’t involve “amnesty” or even an explicit “path to citizenship” for the undocumented population. His approach basically revolves around achieving legalization–which most Republicans accept in theory–and then making reforms to the regular citizenship process that opens up a “path” which doesn’t involve “special” treatment for the undocumented.

Yesterday Greg parsed an interview with Paul Ryan that gives him hope the GOP leadership is thinking along those same lines, or at least won’t, in the “immigration principles” that are soon to emerge from a House Republican retreat, close off this complex avenue to a compromise. And this gives him grounds for cautious optimism:

What all of this tells us that Republicans are actually grappling with the policy issues on the table. That alone is a step forward. It is a reminder that the intense push for reform from many major GOP-aligned constituencies — agricultural interests; big business; evangelicals — is really starting to matter, perhaps more than all the yelling coming from the no-amnesty-at-all-costs brigade.

Trouble is, the “no-amnesty-at-all-costs brigade” does indeed have a lot of clout, as evidenced by the fact that House Republican leaders are having to go to such lengths to keep even a flicker of hope alive for a deal with the Senate. And that’s why the emerging conservative-activist line on this subject is morphing from “do this and don’t do that” to, as a National Review editorial put it earlier this week, “Do Nothing.” If you read that editorial, you’ll see that opponents of reform are on to the indirect approach Greg is talking about, and want to stop it:

[M]any Republicans have convinced themselves that the key question is whether or not illegal immigrants eventually get citizenship, and insist that only a law that creates a “path to citizenship” is amnesty. They are wrong on both counts. The central question is whether illegal immigrants are allowed to work and live here legally. As soon as they are, that’s the amnesty. For most of these immigrants, eventual citizenship will be an afterthought.

So after months of letting Republicans fool around with various immigration sub-proposals in a desultory way, so long as they didn’t risk passage of a bill or bills that could be taken to conference with the Senate, the representatives of “the base” are now warning the leadership could be pulling a fast one, and they want it all shut down. Greg is right that this may ultimately come down to a test of power between different GOP factions, but my suspicion that the bad guys still have an advantage is enhanced by the byzantine path the not-so-bad guys are pursuing, which does not seem to enjoy the element of surprise.

UPDATE: House GOP “immigration principles” released; no real surprises. “Special” path to citizenship ruled out, as is conference with the Senate over its bill. Triggers (not clearly defined) are insisted upon; big emphasis on reining in executive powers in this area. Read into it that which you wish.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.