House speaker hails tentative bipartisan immigration plan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The top Republican in Congress voiced support on Tuesday for an emerging overhaul of immigration laws, which includes a controversial pathway toward U.S. citizenship.

Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner said "there are a lot of issues in here that have to be dealt with" but the tentative proposal by a bipartisan group of eight House members "is frankly a pretty responsible solution."

While hailing the overall plan, Boehner did not specifically address its centerpiece, a pathway toward citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants, which could include paying a fine and back taxes and learning English.

No undocumented immigrant could proceed along the pathway until there is agreement by a yet-to-be-decided authority that the U.S. border is secure.

"The speaker believes his role is to foster bipartisan efforts to address immigration reform and he will continue to voice support for these efforts," Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said.

"He has not endorsed any one solution, but believes it is important for our members to continue to work and make progress on this issue," Steel said.

Many Republicans have been reluctant to back any pathway toward citizenship, fearing it could amount to or be seen as "amnesty," which is opposed by much of the party.

Bipartisan groups in the House and Senate are drafting plans for an overhaul of the immigration system, which would both include some sort of pathway toward U.S. citizenship.

The Republican National Committee on Monday urged its members to embrace comprehensive immigration reform, an issue long dominated by President Barack Obama's Democrats.

Democrats have been rewarded for their efforts by traditionally being backed by Hispanic voters, who played a major role in Obama's victory in last November's election.

Boehner recalled that the day after the election he made it clear that immigration reform is a "top priority."

Boehner said he and fellow House Republican leaders met last week with the four Republicans on the eight-member bipartisan immigration reform group.

"They are essentially in agreement over how to proceed, but this is just the beginning of the process," Boehner said.

"There is a lot of education that needs to be done because more than half of our members have never dealt with the issue of immigration reform," he said.