By John Whitesides and Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON, Feb 6 (Reuters) - Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives appear increasingly unlikely to pass an immigration overhaul this year, preferring to focus their election-year strategy on a unified assault on President Barack Obama's healthcare law.
House Speaker John Boehner hinted at that strategy on Thursday, when he expressed doubt to reporters that a sweeping revision of U.S. immigration laws would get through Congress this year because Republicans did not trust Democratic President Barack Obama's administration to enforce any immigration laws Congress might write.
But many House Republicans have made clear that they want to put off an almost certainly divisive debate over immigration until next year, when they hope to have more legislative clout and a majority in the Senate. The party is becoming more optimistic about its chances in the Nov. 4 elections, when Republicans are likely to retain control of the House and will try to gain six seats in the Senate to take control from Democrats.
Several lawmakers have estimated that about one-third of House Republicans want to tackle immigration this year, while another one-third or so back the effort but want to avoid a battle in 2014. A smaller group is opposed to any legislation other than beefing up domestic security to guard against illegal immigration, they say.
But a delay could make an immigration overhaul more difficult, supporters say, pushing the debate into the start of the 2016 presidential race when Republican candidates almost certainly will move to the political right to court conservative voters who dominate the party's early nominating contests.
Analysts in both parties say the scenario could be a long-term recipe for disaster for the Republicans, who promised after its 2012 election defeat to tackle immigration as a way to make inroads with a fast-growing Hispanic community that leans Democratic and overwhelmingly supported Obama over Republican Mitt Romney.
"If you land this highly contentious and emotional (immigration) debate in the middle of a presidential selection year, it creates untold opportunities for demagoguery," said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster.
"The people who believe that 2014 is not the right year are also likely to believe that 2015 is not the right year and 2016 is not the right year," he said. "And before you know it, the hole we've started digging with Hispanics gets deeper and deeper."
FOR REPUBLICANS, A DIRE PICTURE
After the 2012 elections, many Republicans -- particularly those in the party's leadership -- described an immigration overhaul as an urgent issue.
Obama won 71 percent of the Hispanic vote in part because the 2012 presidential primary season included several instances in which Republican candidates used harsh rhetoric about Hispanic immigrants. Some Republicans, like Ayres, fear that every misstep and delay on immigration legislation also could seal the party's fate in the 2016 presidential election and beyond by preventing the party from cutting into Democratic support among Hispanics.
Republicans acknowledge that the nation's fast-growing Hispanic population offers a dire picture for their party. Every month an estimated 73,000 more U.S.-born Hispanics become eligible to vote at age 18, and Latino groups are ramping up their voter registration efforts.
"There is a penalty for not doing something," said John Feehery, a Republican strategist and former House leadership aide. "The longer this delays, the harder it is for Republicans to build bridges with a very important voting bloc."
The immigration push has hit a roadblock in the Republican-led House, where conservatives have called a bill passed by the Senate an "amnesty" plan that would be unfair to immigrants who have sought citizenship legally. The bill would offer a pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants.
House Republican leaders have tried to craft a compromise that would offer legalization without citizenship for some of the 11 million, but they emerged from a fractious closed-door retreat with their caucus last week more pessimistic about immigration legislation.
"I've never underestimated the difficulty in moving forward this year," Boehner said Thursday. He refused to say whether he would advance an immigration plan to the House floor this year.
'WHY CREATE MORE HAVOC?'
With public dissatisfaction over Obamacare stoking hopes of a big election win in November, many House Republicans do not want to muddle their healthcare and economic arguments with an immigration battle that angers the party's conservatives.
"Why create more havoc right now? Let's get the election over with and when the smoke clears, let's sit down and make a levelheaded solution to the (immigration) problem," Republican Rep. John Carter of Texas told Reuters after last week's retreat.
Democrats said, however, that Republicans' failure to pass an immigration bill could help them keep control of the Senate. In at least five competitive Senate races, House Republicans are expected to be the party's Senate candidate.
"Republican intransigence on this issue only deepens the unpopularity of the House Republican brand," said Matt Canter, a spokesman for the campaign committee of Senate Democrats.
Some Republican strategists played down the concerns, pointing to opinion polls that show immigration ranking low on the topics that most voters care about, well behind economic issues and healthcare.
The voter turnout for midterm elections also tends to be older and more white than in presidential-election years, with fewer Hispanics and other minorities heading to the polls.
Analysts said that for most House Republicans, the fear of a primary challenge from a conservative candidate from the Tea Party movement is a stronger driving force than concerns about the party's long-term future in national elections.
Conservatives and Tea Party groups have warned Congress that voting for a path to legalization for undocumented workers at a time of high unemployment could carry a high political cost.
"We want to put them on notice and make sure they know we are watching their votes. If not this time, in the next cycle we will run someone against them," said Scott Hofstra, spokesman for United Kentucky Tea Party, which is backing a primary challenge to Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell this year.
Rep. Carter, an early Tea Party activist who spent about five years quietly trying to come up with a bipartisan immigration bill, has seen first-hand how immigration issues can rile conservative voters.
"I had a town hall meeting where a thousand people yelled at me for 2 1/2 hours," Carter said of the immigration debate. "The screaming was pretty bad -- 'Don't do it!'"
Advocates of an immigration overhaul say Boehner might find members more willing to consider an immigration bill in late spring or early summer, after most filing deadlines have passed for candidates who intend to run for the House this year.
Once those deadlines pass, the theory goes, incumbent Republicans might be less fearful of stirring up Tea Party opposition and will have a better idea of any obstacles to re-election in their conservative districts.
But such a move by Boehner would leave little time before the summer campaign season to iron out complex legislation to deal with the thorny issues of legalization and citizenship, and questions of how to calibrate the future flow of foreign high-tech workers and low-skilled laborers into the United States. (Editing by David Lindsey and Amanda Kwan)