By Thomas Ferraro and Rachelle Younglai
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives emerged from an immigration meeting on Wednesday divided over whether to help the 11 million undocumented people living in the United States, but eager to bolster border security.
Several lawmakers said there appeared to be no consensus over calls for granting legal status to the 11 million, many of whom have lived in the United States for years, after a 2 1/2-hour closed-door session.
"We have a disagreement inside here," said Republican Representative Steve King, who guessed that his colleagues were split "50/50" on whether any of the undocumented residents should get legal status.
There will likely have to be an agreement between the Republican-led House and Democratic-led Senate, which last month approved a comprehensive immigration bill backed by the White House that includes a pathway to citizenship.
Backers of the Senate bill insist some sort of path to citizenship must be part of any final bill that they help send to President Barack Obama to sign into law.
The Republican lawmakers said there was consensus that the U.S. border should be secured further against illegal crossings and suggested that House Speaker John Boehner could seek passage of such a bill as a first step toward a larger agreement.
Republican leaders issued a statement again rejecting a Senate-passed bill that puts the 11 million on a 13-year path to citizenship.
"It's hard not to be discouraged right now," said Senator Jeff Flake, the Arizona Republican who helped write the Senate bill and served 12 years in the House.
The Senate bill removes the threat of deportation for most illegal residents, but features several hurdles to citizenship, including learning English, paying back taxes and passing criminal background checks. It authorizes $46 billion for border security and to revamp the visa system to help high-tech firms, farmers and other businesses hire foreign workers.
Obama and his fellow Democrats have been calling for prompt action by the House. Earlier on Wednesday, the president told a group of Hispanic lawmakers that he was willing to do whatever it takes to help enact a bill.
Even former President George W. Bush, who rarely wades into policy debates, gave a boost to efforts in Congress. While the two-term Republican president did not embrace any particular bill, he said he hoped there would be a "positive resolution."
Speaking in Dallas at a naturalization ceremony, Bush said, "We have a problem. The laws governing the immigration system aren't working. ... The system is broken."
But House Republicans, who hold a 234-201 majority over Democrats, gave no indication of fast action on a major bill.
"It is going to be a process of months, not days or weeks," Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma told Reuters in a telephone interview after Wednesday's meeting.
"I don't see anything until late this year or early next year. It is going to take that long; it is going to be that big of a debate," Cole added, referring to tough bargaining with the Senate.
Meanwhile, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor is working on a plan to grant citizenship for children of illegal immigrants who are in the United States through no fault of their own, according to Republican lawmakers. In the past, Republicans have blocked such legislation.
'AMERICA THE BEAUTIFUL'
But even that relatively modest step is controversial among some of the most conservative House Republicans.
"You can't separate the ... kids from those (parents) who came across the border with a pack of contraband on their back," King said.
And Representative Mo Brooks said he recited a line from "America the Beautiful" to bolster his argument that legislation should not help those in the United States illegally: "Confirm thy soul in self control, Thy liberty in law."
"Anyone who has come to our country, their first step on American soil is to thumb their nose at American laws ... we should not award them with our highest honor, which is citizenship," Brooks said.
Earlier, the White House signaled that Obama will become more publicly engaged in the intensifying immigration debate in Congress.
The administration released a report arguing that passing sweeping immigration reforms such as the Senate's would expand the economy 3.3 percent by 2023 and reduce the federal deficit by almost $850 billion over 20 years.
Thomas Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which wants comprehensive immigration reforms enacted, expressed hope that public support would prompt House Republicans to eventually back a major bill. "If the arguments are compelling, this deal is not over by any means," he said.
The November presidential election, in which Obama captured more than 70 percent of the growing Hispanic vote, was seen by many Republicans as a wake-up call that their party must do more to appeal to minorities.
The call for comprehensive reform resonates with some Republican senators, who have to run in statewide elections, and with some prospective Republican presidential candidates.
But it holds less appeal to House Republicans who fear challenges from the conservative Tea Party movement if they back a pathway to citizenship, a core demand of Democrats.
According to a recent study by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, which tracks congressional races, only 24 of the 234 House Republicans represent districts that are more than 25 percent Hispanic.
David Wasserman, who conducted the Cook study, said most House Republicans believe they could defeat a Democratic challenger in the general election.
But "they don't know if they will face a Republican primary challenge if they vote for an immigration bill backed by the president," Wasserman said.
(Writing by Richard Cowan; Additional reporting by Caren Bohan in Washington and Lisa Maria Garza in Dallas; Editing by Doina Chiacu)