WASHINGTON -- Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) is quietly building bridges with two key Republicans who may run for president in 2016 -- Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Paul Ryan -- to forge bipartisan immigration reform legislation.
While Congress is consumed with highly partisan fiscal cliff negotiations -- and with the ever-polarizing gun control debate revived in the wake of the Sandy Hook school massacre -- immigration issues have dropped back for now. But after the new Congress convenes in January, that's expected to change.
I've learned that Gutierrez met Thursday with Rubio, the Florida Republican -- and son of Cuban immigrants -- in his Senate office here. On Dec. 12, Gutierrez huddled with Ryan -- the Wisconsin Republican who was Mitt Romney's vice presidential running mate -- at his House office.
"What we did was just kind of catch up," Gutierrez told me. Ryan and Gutierrez decided they want to "explore opportunities to work together." Gutierrez, one of the House leaders on immigration issues -- who has kept constant pressure on President Barack Obama to do more -- is crossing the aisle as Republicans need very much to woo the fast growing number of Hispanic voters -- who in large part rejected the Romney/Ryan ticket.
After the election, Gutierrez saw Ryan at the House gym and suggested they get together. Gutierrez did not pump iron with Ryan, who has an intense workout regime. "I was going to the less physical, less ardous workout," Gutierrez told me.
Despite campaigning against Ryan, Gutierrez has a personal relationship with him and when it comes to immigration, Gutierrez says Ryan "wants to do the right thing."
That Romney talked about "self-deportation" -- and Ryan was part of that ticket -- is not an issue for Gutierrez.
Not well known, Gutierrez noted, is that he and Ryan share some history: In 2005, Ryan was a co-sponsor of bipartisan and bi-cameral comprehensive immigration reform legislation carried in the House by Gutierrez and Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.). "It wasn't like it was a long line of Republicans supporting it. He's always supported immigration reform," Gutierrez said.
The measure was sponsored in the Senate by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.). That was the last time lawmakers crossed the aisle to work meaningfully together on immigration reform -- and that mighty effort failed.
Ryan's spokesman, Kevin Selfert, told me Ryan has worked with Gutierrez "in the past to develop bipartisan solutions that would address our broken immigration system. Among the topics discussed during their meeting was how best to build on these past efforts in the 113th Congress."
Gutierrez declined to provide details on the Ryan and Rubio meetings.
"I had a good meeting with Sen. Rubio and I look forward to talking to him against early and often in the New Year. As I have said, he can play a very important role on the immigration issue and will help the Republican Party address the immigration issue in a productive way, in a way that resonates both with Latinos and the rest of America," Gutierrez said.
Alex Conant, Rubio's spokesman confirmed but declined to elaborate on the private meeting. Rubio is deeply engaged in immigration issues and "he really wants to be part of the solution here," Conant said. Besides meeting with Gutierrez , Rubio has also talked with Ryan about immigration issues.
FOOTNOTE: Gutierrez -- who stumped for Obama and spoke at the Democratic National Convention -- is concerned that Obama has not met with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus since May 2011.
While Obama last June issued a much welcomed executive order allowing many youths in the U.S. illegally through no fault of their own to stay here -- Gutierrez is speaking out as many of their parents are being deported under the Obama administration. Rubio -- who was working on his own immigration proposals -- was "disappointed" that the Obama White House did not "seek out his advice" before issuing that executive order, Conant said.