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GOP Mulls Immigration Strategy at Annual Retreat

Image: Lawmakers Address The Media After Their Weekly Policy Luncheon Meetings

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 13: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (L) (R-KY) answers questions following a weekly policy luncheon with Senate Republicans at the U.S. Capitol January 13, 2015 in Washington, DC. McConnell discussed a meeting he attended with U.S. President Barack Obama earlier in the day at the White Hous. Also pictured is Sen. John Thune (R) (R-SD). (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images) Win McNamee / Getty Images

HERSHEY, Pa. -- Republicans have descended this week on a town often called “the Sweetest Place on Earth,” but their agenda during their annual retreat here has been dominated by one of the party’s most bitter debates: immigration reform.

House and Senate Republicans gathered for their first joint retreat in 10 years Thursday in an effort to coalesce around a plan to keep the Department of Homeland Security funded past February, while at the same time holding President Barack Obama accountable for what they say are unconstitutional executive actions granting millions of undocumented immigrant legal status.

The only problem? They’re going to need Democrats’ help to get any legislation through the Senate and to the president’s desk.

“The magic number in the Senate is 60,” Sen John Thune (R-SD) told reporters Thursday, “When we have these discussions, as we have today and yesterday with our colleagues in the House, obviously we share the same goals.”

Prior to leaving for the retreat, the House passed a bill to provide funding to DHS through the remainder of the fiscal year. But the conservative wing of the chamber’s Republicans successfully pushed to couple the funding bill with language to block Obama’s executive actions. All Democrats, along with ten Republicans, voted against the legislation. Rep. Jeff Denham (R-CA), who opposed the bill, called it a “clear overreach” by conservatives.

“I think we had the opportunity to actually define for the American public that we wanted to stop the President’s unconstitutional action that he did in November,” Denham told reporters today, “But going far beyond that I think not only sets us back on immigration reform, but I think it sends a mixed message to the American public.”

The House-passed legislation is likely too conservative to pass the Senate intact. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell offered no specific alternatives on Thursday, telling reporters that Senate leaders will have to “see what happens” with the legislation when his chamber takes it up.

“Well, we’re going to try to pass it. That will be the first choice,” McConnell told reporters Thursday afternoon. “If we’re unable to do that, then we’ll let you know what comes next.”

Republicans held an afternoon discussion on the path forward, which House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) said had “more than two dozen” members stand up to voice their opinion on the matter.

“The Congress has people who draw a hard line and has people who want amnesty for everyone, so I think somewhere between those two extremes we’ve got more than 218 votes to pass some immigration bills,” Chaffetz told NBC News, “I’m very optimistic about it, more optimistic than I have ever been.”

Complicating matters is the increased importance of DHS in the wake of recent terrorist attacks in Paris, as well as the arrest of an Ohio man who was allegedly plotting to attack the US Capitol.

Those narratives make Republicans eager to rule out the idea that DHS could be forced to shut down if no agreement on funding is reached.

“There aren’t going to be any more drama[s] associated with shutting down, for example, the Department of Homeland Security, that’s off the table,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) said. “But as to how proceed, I don’t know.”