WASHINGTON — The prime architect of the House's hard-line bill on immigration policy expressed skepticism Friday about finding common ground with the Senate, saying he viewed the two chambers as "moons apart" on the issue.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) insisted that he was committed to trying to reach a compromise with the Senate.
"I would like to see a bill passed and signed into a law," he said.
"However," he added, "I am a realist."
Sensenbrenner, who is expected to serve as the House's lead player in negotiations with the Senate to produce legislation both houses would support, said he expected those talks would prove "very difficult."
In a sign of that challenge, he dismissed as a "nonstarter" a key component of the immigration bill the Senate passed Thursday -- the creation of a path to citizenship for most of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the U.S.
Sensenbrenner's comments at a Capitol Hill news conference suggested that the gulf separating the House and Senate immigration bills might make a compromise impossible. If Congress can't agree on joint legislation, President Bush's push for the first major rewrite of immigration law in 20 years will have failed.
Bush has backed the multifaceted approach contained in the Senate bill, which a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers steered to passage.
Like a measure the House passed in December, the bill calls for significant improvements in border security and a crackdown on businesses that hire illegal immigrants. But though the House bill focused solely on enforcement concerns, the Senate measure also would set up a guest worker program and establish a legalization route for illegal immigrants who pay a fine and back taxes and meet other requirements.
For the senators who backed their chamber's bill, the legalization provision is one of its most important elements. But for Sensenbrenner and other conservatives in the House, it is a fatal flaw that they criticize as "amnesty" for lawbreakers.
Sensenbrenner reiterated that for him and his fellow conservatives, any possible compromise with the Senate must maintain the House's emphasis on enforcement efforts.
"A guest worker program can be on the table [during negotiations] if it does not include amnesty, but only if sanctions [on businesses hiring illegal immigrants] and increased border patrols are effective," he said.
Sensenbrenner's comments reflect the convictions of dozens of House Republicans, as well as their concerns that agreeing to any legalization provision would cost them at the polls. But some congressional observers also suggested that his remarks represented a tactical position at the start of the search for a compromise.
The House GOP leadership "feels obliged at this point to take a very hard line and discourage any speculation that the House is ready to make a change," said Tom Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank.
After the Senate approved its bill Thursday, several of its supporters said intensified lobbying by the administration would be essential to persuade the House to accept a bill that addresses the residency status of illegal immigrants.
But Sensenbrenner scoffed at the likelihood that White House efforts could sway House conservatives, noting the chilly reception that Karl Rove, Bush's senior political advisor, received during two recent meetings on Capitol Hill in which he pressed the president's case.
Sensenbrenner, who did not attend the private sessions, said that his colleagues "jumped all over Rove" and that they complained that Bush and the Senate were "not where the people are at" on the legalization issue.
White House spokesman Tony Snow said Friday that the administration would stay involved as the House-Senate negotiations unfolded.
"The White House is going to be actively engaged in reaching out to members of both houses, to try to come up with a bill that meets the criteria that the president laid out" in a nationally televised speech this month, Snow said.
Snow added that the White House was already addressing House concerns through Bush's plan to send National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border to back up Border Patrol agents.
"A lot of House members say, 'We want to do border enforcement first,' " said Snow. "Border enforcement starts the first full week of June. It's already happening."
Both Snow and Sensenbrenner said they believed Congress would wrap up negotiations on an immigration bill before November's elections.
And Sensenbrenner acknowledged that a need for some action could serve as a powerful prod for an agreement.
"The existing system is probably the worst of all worlds, and we have an obligation, in my opinion, to try to work something out," said Sensenbrenner.
He rejected the suggestions of some House conservatives that the chamber should simply avoid negotiating with the Senate.
"[That] is simply punting and saying we'll let the system go on and maybe after the election we'll work it out," Sensenbrenner said.
"I think the American people are entitled to have a look at a compromise before the elections."
Times staff writer James Gerstenzang contributed to this report.