Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg
Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

U.S. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan may be the last best hope for immigration-reform advocates who, despite having outdueled opponents over the August recess, have made little headway in weakening House Republican leaders' resistance to a comprehensive measure that includes a pathway to citizenship for undocumented workers.

The conservative Wisconsin Republican representative is a longtime advocate of immigration reform, and proponents hope he'll use his influence to lobby party leaders and rank-and-file conservatives when Congress returns next month.

"Paul Ryan is absolutely pivotal," says Frank Sharry, who runs America's Voice and is a top strategist for reform proponents.

Ryan, who was the 2012 Republican vice presidential candidate, is eager to showcase the opportunity agenda of his mentor, the former New York Representative and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Jack Kemp. But, if not a presidential candidate, Ryan aspires to be the next chairman of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee and then perhaps speaker. Visible support for the immigration legislation might alienate some conservatives.

Over the August recess, supporters of a measure have enjoyed far more success than critics. Two examples: Earlier this month, an anti-immigration rally in House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's Richmond, Virginia, district, featuring immigration-bashing Iowa Representative Steve King, drew only about 50 people. But last week, a pro-immigration rally in the Bakersfield, California, district of House Republican Whip Kevin McCarthy attracted more than 1,000 supporters.

Proponents of a measure akin to the Senate-passed legislation outspent the other side, by some estimates, by three to one over the recess. The high-technology business community has been active. A pro-reform evangelical group launched a $400,000 radio-advertising buy in more than 50 House districts. A few new conservative Republican supporters, including Florida Representative Daniel Webster, have joined the reform camp.

However, there is little indication the House leadership has budged on pushing a comprehensive law and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte disappointed supporters when, in a meeting with constituents this week, he not only hardened his opposition to a comprehensive bill but even came out against a pathway to citizenship for people brought to the U.S. as children by undocumented-immigrant parents .

The resolution, both sides agree, probably will come down to whether the House votes on and passes more conservative legislation but agrees to go to a conference with the Senate to hammer out a final deal.

(Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)