By Thomas Ferraro and Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The push for comprehensive immigration legislation faces an uncertain fate in the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives even as Senate supporters voiced optimism on Thursday for overwhelming backing in that chamber.
As the Democratic Party-controlled Senate pushed ahead on an 844-page bill that aims to rewrite America's immigration law, the Republican-controlled House was still undecided on how broad of a bill it might consider - or even if it would advance legislation this year.
That was the message delivered Thursday by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, who told reporters that he would be introducing a series of individual bills, starting with legislation to help farmers get foreign workers and improving an electronic system to help businesses be sure they are hiring legal workers.
"We have made no decisions about how to proceed," Goodlatte said at a news conference, adding he did not know whether his committee would try to advance "individual bills or whether it would pertain to a larger bill."
He did however say that he hoped some sort of legislation could pass in 2013.
Goodlatte's uncertainty is in contrast to senators who have advanced a comprehensive immigration bill that is expected to be debated next month by the Senate Judiciary Committee. That measure would put the 11 million people living illegally in the United States on a 13-year path to citizenship.
Two authors of that bipartisan bill said on Thursday they are hopeful most Senate Democrats and Republicans will support their White House-backed measure.
"It is very doable," Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona said of the prospects of attracting wide bipartisan backing. Democratic Senator Charles Schumer of New York agreed.
The Senate Judiciary Committee plans to debate, and most likely amend, the newly introduced bill as Democrats aim to get full Senate approval by late June.
Goodlatte refused to set up any such timetable for House action.
Referring to the November, 2014 congressional elections, the Virginia Republican said: "Election years are more difficult than non-election years" for passing major, controversial legislation. "But I'll also say that it is far more important that we get this right this time...than live by any particular timetables."
Similarly, Goodlatte was non-committal when asked whether House legislation would contain provisions letting those who came to the United States illegally or overstayed their visas to eventually become U.S. citizens.
"What exactly can be done there remains to be seen," Goodlatte said.
On the hot-button issue of potential citizenship for undocumented residents, Goodlatte said: "I prefer not to see a special pathway to citizenship but a status that would give them some kind of legal status."
Immigration reform advocates have long insisted that legislation must be addressed in a comprehensive way rather than piecemeal and that the 11 million undocumented immigrants must be "brought out of the shadows" and set onto a road to citizenship. It is a 13-year-long road in the Senate bill that includes the payment of penalties for people who either entered the U.S. illegally or overstayed their visas.
McCain and Schumer, speaking at a breakfast roundtable with reporters sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor, said legislation without a pathway to citizenship would be a "non-starter."
They said their aim is to muster strong support, as many as 70 votes in the 100-member Democratic-led chamber, to help the measure's chances in the Republican-led House.
"It is a balanced bill," Schumer said. "I'm optimistic it will pass."
McCain and Schumer drafted the comprehensive measure with six other senators, three Democrats and three Republicans. It would bolster border security, help provide low- and high-skilled workers for businesses and create an earned pathway to U.S. citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants.
McCain said he called Representative Paul Ryan, the 2012 Republican vice presidential nominee, on Wednesday to thank him for publicly voicing support in recent days for comprehensive immigration reform.
"I believe in it," McCain quoted Ryan as telling him. Ryan is seen as an influential voice among conservatives who could help propel any bill in the House.
Even so, many conservative Republicans question whether any broad immigration legislation should be attempted until further security measures are in place along the southwestern border with Mexico.
(Editing by Fred Barbash and Cynthia Osterman)