WASHINGTON — As House Republicans weighed their next steps on immigration Wednesday, former president George W. Bush nudged them ever so gently from the Texas sidelines to carry a ‘‘benevolent spirit’’ into a debate that includes a possible path to citizenship for millions living in the country illegally.
The former president’s ability to sway a new generation of House conservatives was a matter of considerable doubt, especially because many lawmakers backed by the Tea Party movement are on record in opposition to a citizenship provision.
‘‘We care what people back home say, not what some former president says,’’ declared Representative Tim Huelskamp, a second-term Kansas Republican who has clashed with party leadership.
Still, the timing and substance of Bush’s remarks were reminders of the imperative that national party leaders feel that Republicans must broaden their appeal among Hispanic voters to compete successfully in future presidential elections.
‘‘America can be a lawful society and a welcoming society at the same time,’’ Bush said at a naturalization ceremony in Dallas.
Democrats embraced his message, challenging House Speaker John Boehner to proceed in the same spirit.
While the Senate last month passed a sweeping bipartisan bill that includes a path to citizenship, the House has moved more incrementally. Its Judiciary Committee has cleared four smaller measures in recent weeks, none of which include the path citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally.
The White House said President Obama will meet Thursday with two senators playing a major role in the immigration overhaul in Congress. Obama will meet with Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, and Senator Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat. Both were members of the group that drafted the Senate bill.
In more than four years since he left the White House, Bush has rarely spoken out publicly about either policy or politics, and he said he did not particularly want to yesterday.
But he said the nation has a problem.
“The laws governing the immigration system are broken,’’ he said. “The system is broken. I do hope there is a positive resolution to the debate. And I hope during the debate that we keep a benevolent spirit in mind, and we understand the contributions immigrants make to our country.’’