Obama suggested in an interview aired yesterday that he may drop his insistence that any legislation include a special pathway to citizenship for the 11 million people already in the US illegally.
A day earlier, House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner and other Republican leaders released immigration principles that would allow millions of adults who live in the country unlawfully to get legal status after paying back taxes and fines.
Immigration is Obama's best hope for a big second-term legislative victory after his attempts to push through gun control laws failed last year in the divided Congress.
With November congressional elections approaching, many Republicans see the immigration measure as a chance to attract Hispanic voters who largely supported Obama and the Democrats in 2012.
Still, the negotiations are tense. The Republican leadership faces strong opposition from several conservatives who are suspicious of Obama's agenda and fear that legislation will lead to citizenship for people who broke US immigration laws.
Obama repeated his preference for a solid route to citizenship. But the president said he would have to evaluate the implications of a process to allow people get legal status and then have the option to become citizens.
"If the speaker proposes something that says right away, folks aren't being deported, families aren't being separated, we're able to attract top young students to provide the skills or start businesses here, and then there's a regular process of citizenship, I'm not sure how wide the divide ends up being," Obama said in a CNN interview that was recorded Thursday.
The House principles released Thursday say "there will be no special path to citizenship for individuals who broke our nation's immigration laws."
Still, it wouldn't preclude millions from trying to obtain permanent legal residence, often known as a green card, through sponsorship by an employer or adult child. Those individuals could later seek citizenship.
While strong majorities of Hispanics continue to back a pathway to citizenship, a Pew Research Center poll in December found that being able to live and work in the US legally without the threat of deportation was more important to Latinos, by 55 per cent to 35 per cent.