WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama on Tuesday embraced a sweeping overhaul of the nation's immigration system put forward by a bipartisan group of senators, saying it was "largely consistent" with his own principles for immigration reform.
Obama, who had said previously that he would submit his own bill if not satisfied with the Senate proposal, urged Congress to "quickly move" the bill forward and that he was "willing to do whatever it takes" to help.
The Democratic president spoke after meeting with two of the measure's chief sponsors, Senators John McCain, a Republican from Arizona, and Charles Schumer, a Democrat from New York.
The bipartisan support for the bill and the president's endorsement of it improves its chances of passage but by no means ensures it.
The four Democrats and four Republicans sponsoring the measure indicated on Tuesday they were preparing for a months-long battle over the bill, with the greatest challenge expected in the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives.
Some of that opposition surfaced Tuesday, even though many House members, including the Republican leadership, resolved to stay silent for the day because of the Boston Marathon bombing on Monday.
Republican Representative Lamar Smith of Texas slammed the Senators' plan and said it would encourage even more illegal immigration, favor foreign workers and treat illegal immigrants better than those who have played by the rules.
McCain, who lost the 2008 presidential election to Obama, warned that the defeat of any one of the key provisions of the complex legislation could jeopardize the whole effort.
He told reporters that it was "carefully crafted" to keep Republicans, Democrats and different interest groups on board and that if "certain things" were changed, "we would lose one side or the other."
For this and other reasons, Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, another of the bill's sponsors, said the group planned on taking its time with the legislation.
"It's a complicated issue and I think people want to learn more about it," the Cuban-American lawmaker told reporters. "This will be a while. This is not going to be done in a week or quite frankly in a month."
'SERIOUS BORDER SECURITY'
Rubio's comment underscored the delicate construction of the proposal, which would create a new legal status for millions of undocumented immigrants, as urged by immigrant advocacy groups and large segments of the Democratic party.
But to lure Republican support, it conditions a path to permanent legal status - and ultimately a chance for citizenship - on the success of a multibillion-dollar effort to make U.S. borders less porous, using unmanned aerial surveillance, the construction of double and triple lawyers of fencing and the deployment of thousands of additional border patrol officers along with the National Guard.
To get business support, the bill would create a new system of visas for temporary agricultural workers and low-skilled laborers as well as expand the number of specialized, highly-trained foreigners allowed to enter the country to work for technology companies.
To avoid alienating fiscal conservatives in both parties, the proposal denies most federal benefits to the immigrants until they achieve permanent status in the United States, which could take 10 years.
Supporters insist that the bill would not provide an amnesty to illegal immigrants.
The eight senators are trying to pull together broad Republican and Democratic support in hopes that doing so will save the legislation from the fate of failed efforts to comprehensively reform immigration over the past three decades.
That strategy began to pay off Tuesday, even before the bill had been formally introduced.
Conservative anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, was among those who praised the immigration reform effort. He said he would attend a news conference later this week sponsored by the bipartisan group of senators backing the bill.
"They are doing serious border security. They are making sure that the 10 or 11 million who are here without papers can stay and work as long they are not criminals as long as they're working. So you're weeding out bad guys and allowing people who are good and decent and hard-working to be able to stay and work and get in line in questions of citizenship ..."
Rather than being a cost to the country, the bill would be a "boon" to the economy and would save taxpayers money because those with the provisional visas won't be eligible for federal benefits, Norquist said.