By Gabriel Debenedetti and Andy Sullivan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. businesses, religious leaders and other supporters of overhauling the nation's immigration laws mounted a massive lobbying push on Tuesday to urge a reluctant House of Representatives to tackle the issue before the end of the year.
More than 600 people from 40 states planned to meet one-on-one with lawmakers to encourage the House to act soon on a top priority of labor groups, Latinos and businesses ranging from apple growers to software companies.
Measures aimed at dealing with the estimated 11 million people who are in the United States illegally have broad support among Democrats and many Republicans in Congress. But Republicans who control the House face resistance from some grassroots conservatives who object to giving millions of undocumented immigrants a potential pathway to U.S. citizenship, which those critics see as "amnesty."
The divisions between conservatives in the Tea Party movement and more pragmatic Republicans have been at the fore in recent weeks during a government shutdown that tarnished the party's public support.
As part of the new lobbying push on immigration, labor advocates planned to draw attention to their cause next month with a hunger strike by several activists on the National Mall.
"The time is now. We need to deliver a message of urgency," Margaret Mimms, the sheriff in Fresno County, California, told a crowd at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday.
The issue has attracted a broad coalition that stretches across the usual U.S. political fault lines.
Farmers and high-tech firms say they can't find enough qualified workers under the existing quota system for immigrants, while Latinos and liberal groups are pressing for legal status for millions who are in the United States without authorization. Business groups such as the U.S. Chamber and labor unions such as the AFL-CIO have set aside their usual differences to push for a broad overhaul of immigration laws.
"There's no way you can get 11 million people, drop them off, and have them come back. We feel strongly that there is an economy here in our country with no voice," said Fuad Reveiz, a former National Football League kicker who owns an insurance agency in Knoxville, Tennessee.
Reveiz, president of the East Tennessee Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said he planned to meet with his congressman, Republican John Duncan. Duncan has said he is reluctant to support a bill that would provide a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, a central element of a bill passed the Democratic-led Senate.
Advocates for new laws have seen 2013 as their best chance for change in more than a decade because Democratic President Barack Obama has made immigration a top priority and business and labor groups resolved differences that undercut an attempt in 2006.
The Senate passed its comprehensive immigration bill in June. The House had been widely expected to take up the issue this fall, but a budget dispute that led to a 16-day government shutdown early in October and the troubled rollout of Obama's signature health law have preoccupied Congress.
Time is running short for Congress to act this year. The House will be in session for only 18 more days in 2013, and many analysts say progress will be more difficult as the November 2014 congressional elections approach.
The ill will generated by the shutdown also has made action more difficult, many say.
"Immigration reform is ultimately a question of when, not if, but prior to the 2014 midterms now seems out of reach," Guggenheim Partners analyst Chris Krueger wrote recently.
THE REPUBLICAN DIVIDE
Democrats have united behind the effort, but Republicans face conflicting demands on the issue.
Party officials say that with an influx of Hispanics changing the nation's demographics in favor of Democratic-leaning voters, Republicans need to reach out to the Hispanic community to stay competitive in future elections. Republicans' business allies, meanwhile, say the current immigration system is holding back economic growth.
But many of the aging, overwhelmingly white voters who make up the Republican Party's base worry that a legalization plan for undocumented immigrants will drive down wages and make it more difficult for American workers to get jobs.
For many Republican lawmakers who represent solidly conservative districts, fears of a backlash may outweigh concerns about the party's national competitiveness.
To that end, advocates for new laws have amassed a coalition of local law enforcement, evangelical leaders and smaller companies - what they call "Bibles, Badges and Business" - to press their case. Some conservative interest groups, such as Americans for Tax Reform, have taken up the issue as well.
"This has become personal for us," said Barrett Duke, an official with the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant church in the United States. "We do need some hearts to be changed, and we do need God involved."
'KEEP PUSHING IT'
House Republican leaders have said they will not take up the plan that passed the Senate, which would provide millions of undocumented immigrants an opportunity to become citizens.
Instead, the House is likely to vote on a series of smaller bills. Advocates for new laws say they would be happy if the House could pass one or two of them before the end of the year.
That could allow the House and the Senate to resolve their differences and send a final bill to Obama to sign into law. Some key Republicans in the Senate, including Florida's Marco Rubio, now say they prefer that approach.
Fiscal issues could knock immigration off the agenda in January and February, as Congress will have to renew agreements to keep the government operating and extend its borrowing authority. Advocates worry that momentum for immigration changes will die if the House does not act by April.
"Part of our job is to keep pressing that timetable and keep pushing it up as much as you can," Randy Johnson, a top official with the U.S. Chamber, said in a conference call on Monday.
The upcoming 2014 election may make action more difficult, but some groups hope to use the election as a pressure point.
The Service Employees International Union plans to run television ads designed to pressure about 30 House Republicans who could be vulnerable in next year's elections because of the high number of immigrants in their district. They include California Representative Kevin McCarthy, the No. 3 Republican in the House, who represents the Bakersfield area.
"I've seen as much heat as I've ever seen placed on somebody being turned on him," SEIU president Mary Kay Henry told the Reuters Washington Summit last week.
(Editing by David Lindsey)