By Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Conservative Republicans voiced skepticism on the prospects for immigration legislation on Wednesday, a day before House Republican leaders were to brief their rank-and-file on broad principles for advancing immigration bills.
Republican Representative Jim Jordan, an outspoken voice among House conservatives, told Reuters that it would be "very difficult" for the House to pass a bill in this election year that would legalize many of the 11 million undocumented people currently living in the United States.
House Speaker John Boehner and other leading House Republicans have been crafting a series of principles as a first step toward moving immigration legislation through the chamber this year.
At the same time, Representative Paul Ryan has been delivering speeches and television interviews that refer to a "probationary" status that would let illegal immigrants "come out of the shadows and reintegrate into society."
That likely would mean allowing them to work in the United States without fear of deportation if they met certain criteria. Many Republican Party activists see that as amnesty for law-breakers.
A bipartisan bill passed by the Senate last year would go further by putting such people on a 13-year path to citizenship.
The Republican Party has been deeply divided on immigration, with Boehner leading the charge on tackling legislation in a piecemeal fashion that could result in a series of measures being enacted.
The principles he is set to float on Thursday at a party retreat in Cambridge, Maryland, are intended to gauge just how formidable the opposition would be within his party.
Jordan said that Congress should take just four steps on immigration: strengthening border controls, clamping down on illegal workers already in the United States, making it easier to hire temporary farm hands from abroad and beefing up U.S. access to foreign high-skilled workers.
"If they're (Democrats) willing to do just those four and only those four and not... a bunch of the other baloney they want to do, then that's fine," the Ohio congressman said.
Noticeably absent from Jordan's list is any move to legalize the 11 million undocumented or eventually grant them citizenship.
President Barack Obama made an appeal during Tuesday's State of the Union address for bipartisan cooperation on immigration reform. He and his fellow Democrats have been insisting that a pathway to citizenship be included.
Vice President Joe Biden told CBS' "This Morning" program on Wednesday: "This year it looks like we may get something done."
But Republican Senator Marco Rubio, one of the authors of the Senate-passed bill, was skeptical.
"I don't know if that happens this year. I don't know if that happens with this administration," Rubio told reporters at a breakfast sponsored by the Wall Street Journal.
Rubio, often mentioned as a 2016 presidential candidate, was asked whether the likely House approach of legalization, rather than a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented, might be acceptable.
"Is that better than the status quo? I think it is," he responded. It is unclear, however, whether Democrats would go along with such a compromise.
Any serious legislative effort in the House would likely not begin in earnest for a few months and probably would have to be wrapped up by the November congressional elections because Boehner normally does not like tackling major bills in a post-election "lame duck" session.
That leaves a compressed timeline for passing such controversial legislation.
A Republican aide who is familiar with immigration reform efforts but asked not to be identified said he thought there would be a serious effort in Congress this year.
But with Republicans so split, "In the end, it might be that they (House Republicans) do principles and nothing else. It depends on how vigorous the attacks are," the aide said.
Despite staunch opposition from Jordan and other conservative Republicans, the aide said "a lot of the House" is comfortable with some sort of legalization program coupled with legislation that grants citizenship to illegals who entered as children.
Brought to the United States by their parents, many of these illegal immigrants have been educated in American public schools and have established roots here.
The aide added that House Republican leaders, who want to better position their party with Latino voters in 2014 and 2016 elections, are hoping that putting out a set of immigration reform principles will not set off a fire storm of opposition.
"Boehner can then say that the world didn't end" and he can proceed with legislation, the aide said.
(Additional reporting by Susan Heavey and Doina Chiacu; Editing by Dan Grebler)