By Richard Cowan and Rachelle Younglai
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Prospects for passage of a major immigration bill improved on Thursday when a bipartisan group of lawmakers in the House of Representatives declared they had reached a tentative deal, resolving disputes that had threatened to torpedo negotiations.
The breakthrough came at the end of a two-hour private meeting of seven Republican and Democratic negotiators. The eighth negotiator in this so-called House Gang of Eight was unavailable after undergoing surgery on Wednesday.
The final sticking point, according to congressional sources, was over whether illegal immigrants now in the United States who gain legal status under the bill could participate in the new healthcare law known as "Obamacare," which Republicans want to repeal.
None of the negotiators would comment on how the matter was resolved. Nor would they provide other details of the deal.
Even with Thursday's breakthrough, the drive to enact a comprehensive immigration bill, which is President Barack Obama's top legislative priority, faces a long, difficult road in Congress.
The agreement still must be drafted into legislation for review by the 435 members of the House. Then it faces a potentially tough battle in the House Judiciary Committee, where several conservative Republicans have been dead-set against a comprehensive bill. Instead, they mostly want to pass tougher border security measures and allow U.S. companies to get better access to foreign high-tech workers.
Any proposal to provide a path to citizenship for 11 million people now in the United States illegally, which is part of a Senate bill, is certain to draw fierce opposition from some Republican quarters.
Furthermore, the House bill will not fully conform to the measure winding its way through the Democratic-controlled Senate.
JUST A 'FIRST STEP'
"There are going to be a lot of differences in a lot of areas" between the House and Senate bills, said Republican Representative Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida, one of the House negotiators.
The tentative deal, he added, is "the first step of a difficult process. But it's a very important step."
Diaz-Balart would not say whether the deal includes an agreement to leave some difficult issues unresolved for now.
Besides healthcare questions, the bipartisan group had been squabbling over the future flow of foreigners streaming into the United States for temporary workers.
"We have essentially come to an agreement on all the major points," Democratic Representative John Yarmuth of Kentucky told reporters after closed-door meeting broke up. He added that some "loose ends" still had to be worked out.
The bipartisan group has been attempting to introduce an immigration bill for years. But disputes over border security, work visa numbers and healthcare provisions had grown to the point that there were fears some lawmakers might be on the verge of dropping out of the long negotiations.
The group had also been arguing over the "triggers" that would define when additional border security steps under the legislation would be sufficient to start legalizing some of the 11 million unauthorized foreigners, sources said.
There was also disagreement over several other policy issues central to an immigration bill, including the number of foreign high-tech workers who would be allowed in, as well as low-skilled construction and service industry laborers.
The Senate Judiciary Committee is in the midst of debating that chamber's bipartisan bill, with the goal of bringing a bill before the full Senate next month.
That panel is struggling with the work visa program in the bill and is under intense pressure from technology companies to make it easier to hire foreign workers.
One of the members of the House group, Republican John Carter, told reporters on Thursday that there was no way the Senate bill would pass the Republican-controlled House.
Immediately following the November 6 elections, in which Hispanic voters roundly rejected Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, House Speaker John Boehner called on his party to pivot on immigration.
After years of blocking moves to put the 11 million on a pathway to citizenship that many conservatives call "amnesty," Boehner, the top elected U.S. Republican, urged his party to work for a major revamp of immigration laws.
Boehner's call for action angered many of his most conservative rank-and-file Republican House members, as well as some conservative interest groups. As a result, it is unclear how Boehner will navigate between his desire to accomplish an immigration bill and resistance from many fellow Republicans.
Earlier on Thursday, before the bipartisan deal, Boehner expressed concerns about the lack of progress in the House so far. He added, "I continue to believe that the House ... needs to work its will. How we get there, we're still dealing with it."
(Additional reporting by Caren Bohan; Editing by Fred Barbash, Cynthia Osterman and Eric Walsh)