WASHINGTON — In a potential breakthrough for long-stalled immigration legislation, House Republicans will consider a proposal this week that would allow millions of immigrants in the country illegally to gain legal status and, in some cases, to eventually become citizens.
House Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio is expected to issue a list of broad immigration "principles" to fellow Republicans during a three-day retreat that begins Wednesday at a Chesapeake Bay resort. For the first time, the list will include a narrow path to citizenship as well as tighter border security and new visas for foreign workers.
President Obama will make his case for immigration overhaul in his State of the Union speech Tuesday, with particular emphasis on the economic benefits of reform on the middle class, aides said. He has said he's open to Republican proposals as long as they include citizenship opportunities for undocumented immigrants.
A senior administration official said Monday that the White House remained "cautiously optimistic" about prospects for moving an immigration bill, or series of bills, through Congress this year.
"There are important economic consequences for passing immigration reform, from expanding economic opportunity to creating jobs, to reducing the deficit," said the official, who asked not to be identified discussing the president's speech in advance. "There are a whole lot of good reasons for the Congress to take action on this."
Whether the Republican shift is enough to break decades of legislative deadlock on immigration, and let Obama achieve a significant domestic goal in his second term, is unclear.
But the push, seven months after the Senate passed a sweeping bipartisan bill, is a signal that Republican leaders want to tackle immigration reform before the midterm election in November.
Republican strategists think taking action on immigration will help GOP candidates appeal to Latino and Asian American voters on other key issues, including taxes and abortion. Those voters overwhelmingly cast ballots for Obama in 2012.
Unlike the Senate bill passed in June, Republicans are expected to require immigrants to use existing legal channels to apply. That means they must wait until more than 3 million applications have been cleared, a near-impossible backlog unless applications are processed more quickly.
But Republicans are considering eliminating a requirement in current law that forces most immigrants without papers to return to their home country for up to 10 years before they can be granted legal papers to stay in the United States.
The Senate plan proposed a 13-year path to citizenship, and the Congressional Budget Office later estimated about 8 million people would be eligible. Democrats and overhaul advocates say they will study the Republican plan to see whether it is significantly more restrictive.
The way forward is full of obstacles. House Republicans have insisted they will not vote on the Senate immigration bill or allow House bills to be combined with it. And Boehner has said the House will consider only small-scale bills, not a single sweeping piece of legislation as the Senate did.
Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Turlock) has led several closed-door meetings with Republican House members in the Capitol this month to craft a legalization package. In an interview, Denham said House Republicans shouldn't stigmatize immigrants or deny those who are qualified a chance to vote or serve on a jury.
"We should never pass a bill that says you can never become a citizen. I think that's just un-American," he said.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose), who worked with Republicans last year on immigration proposals, said if Republicans created impossibly onerous requirements for citizenship, or authorized local jurisdictions to enforce federal immigration laws, those could be "poison pills" for Democrats.
"It is possible to create a plan that will work using the existing system as a framework," Lofgren said. "I need to wait and see what they are going to propose."
Eliseo Medina, a labor leader and an immigrant rights advocate, hailed the Republican shift as progress. "We've gone from 'Immigration is dead' to writing principles. ... If they are serious, we want to be good partners."
Republicans including Rep. Steve King of Iowa remain staunchly opposed, however. He believes that immigrants in the country illegally who are allowed to become citizens will eventually vote for Democrats.
"It's political suicide for Republicans to do this," King said.