WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Work intensified on Tuesday to revamp the U.S. immigration system, but gaps widened between the Democratic-led Senate and Republican-led House of Representatives over what proposed changes should become law.
The net effect was to raise further doubts about the prospects for both houses approving a comprehensive measure that would grant legal status to millions of undocumented immigrants.
House Speaker John Boehner made a surprise announcement in telling reporters that he would only permit for consideration immigration bills backed by most of the 234 Republicans in the 435-member chamber.
"I don't see any way of bringing an immigration bill to the floor that doesn't have a majority support of Republicans," Boehner said after a closed-door meeting with his caucus.
It is widely believed that most House Republicans oppose a pathway to citizenship for 11 million illegal immigrants, a key feature of sweeping legislation now moving through the Senate.
Previously, Boehner had only said that he would await Senate passage of a bill before deciding what course the House would take on an issue at the top of President Barack Obama's legislative agenda this year.
Many Democrats had hoped Boehner would advance a bill like the Senate's - one containing the pathway to citizenship - and that it could pass the House with the combined backing of most of the 201 House Democrats and some Republicans.
But the House Judiciary Committee worked on Tuesday not on pathways for the undocumented but on a Republican proposal to clamp down on them.
It would do so by allowing state and local law enforcement officers to get involved in immigration enforcement, an activity that is now conducted by federal agents. It would also let states and localities enact and enforce their own immigration laws, as long as they were consistent with federal laws.
"We can't just be fixated on securing the (Southwestern) border," Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte said at the start of the panel's work session on the bill. He added that the Republican-backed bill would strengthen federal enforcement of immigration laws while ensuring "that where the federal government fails to act, states can pick up the slack."
Representative John Conyers, the senior Democrat on the committee, called the bill "extreme and heinous." He likened it to an Arizona state law he said had resulted in "widespread racial profiling and unconstitutional arrests."
Some Democrats said they were hopeful Boehner would back off his new requirement that any immigration bill be backed by a majority of House Republicans, just as he did in the past year on such issues as tax hikes on the wealthy, the U.S. debt limit, disaster relief and renewal of a landmark bill to curb domestic violence against women.
"Boehner is trying to maximize his leverage so he can get a bill that is as conservative as possible," one Democratic aide said.
In the Senate, the immigration bill sponsored by a bipartisan "Gang of Eight" was moving more slowly than had been expected.
A split over how to strengthen border security has slowed action on the measure, which would legalize the 11 million illegal immigrants and eventually allow them to apply for citizenship.
The bill also would tighten security along the border with Mexico, but not sufficiently, so far, for many Senate Republicans.
Senator John Hoeven of North Dakota said he and some fellow Republicans were making progress on a compromise amendment that could be unveiled as early as Wednesday to deal with border security.
Boehner echoed complaints by many Republicans about the Senate bill, saying he believed the measure "is weak on border security."
Once the Senate passes its bipartisan bill, there will be pressure on Boehner to bring it or a similar measure up for a vote in his chamber, regardless if most House Republicans oppose it.
"The political winds will be much different after the Senate passes its bill," the Democratic aide said, especially if there is an overwhelming bipartisan tally.
The Republican Party urged its members to embrace comprehensive immigration reform after last year's election, which saw 71 percent of Hispanics, members of the fast-growing voting bloc, support Obama's re-election.
A Republican strategist predicted that Boehner would end up "saving Republicans from themselves" by eventually permitting a vote on the Senate bill in the House.
The strategist said the move could help rescue the Republican Party, but end up costing Boehner his speakership.
Editing by Peter Cooney