* Obama to tout economic benefits of reform to CEOs, unions
* Republicans soften stance, citizenship remains big hurdle
* House panel to take up immigration on Tuesday
WASHINGTON, Feb 4 (Reuters) - President Barack Obama and his
aides will seek to build momentum for U.S. immigration reform
this week, laying down markers ahead of his State of the Union
address amid an increasingly contentious debate in Washington
over proposals for overhauling immigration laws.
Obama plans to hold a series of White House meetings with
corporate chief executives, labor leaders and progressives on
Tuesday to lobby for their support, and has dispatched Homeland
Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to the Southwest to tout the
administration's border security efforts.
The flurry of activity, including new moves in Congress,
comes amid disagreement between the Democratic president and
Republicans over the question of citizenship for illegal
immigrants, an obstacle that could make it hard to reach a final
deal on sweeping legislation.
Obama is expected to use his Feb. 12 State of the Union
speech to Congress to keep the heat on Republicans, who have
appeared more willing to accept an immigration overhaul after
they were chastened by Latino voters' rejection in the November
But differences have emerged since Obama and a bipartisan
Senate working "group of eight" rolled out their proposals last
week aimed at the biggest U.S. immigration revamp in decades.
Obama wants to give America's 11 million illegal immigrants
a clear pathway to apply for citizenship and has vowed to
introduce his own bill if Congress fails to act.
But top Republicans want to defer citizenship until the
county's borders are deemed more secure - a linkage that Obama
and most of his fellow Democrats would find hard to accept.
Obama's aides are confident the president holds the
political advantage on immigration - not least because they
believe that if the reform effort fails in Congress, voters are
more likely to blame the Republicans and they would suffer in
the 2014 midterm congressional elections.
The contours of the Republican strategy could soon become
clearer. The Judiciary Committee of the Republican-controlled
House of Representatives, where reform faces the toughest fight,
will kick off hearings on Tuesday with a broad look at the
immigration system and border security and how to fix them.
A congressional Democratic aide said Republicans have lined
up a set of witnesses that is "a lot more balanced than you
would have seen in previous Congresses, when you would have seen
hard-line enforcement-only advocates be front and center."
SETTING NEW TONE
A number of leading Republicans, worried that their party
has alienated Hispanics with anti-immigrant rhetoric, have made
clear they want to set a new tone with the fast-growing Latino
electorate. More than 70 percent of Hispanic voters backed Obama
in the Nov. 6 presidential election.
Immigration reform advocates will be watching the hearing
closely to see whether Republicans mostly stress piecemeal
reforms, such as more border security and encouraging more guest
workers and high-tech visas, rather than the comprehensive
reforms that Obama and the Democrats are seeking.
Some conservatives have warned that the reform efforts now
taking shape essentially could offer "amnesty" for law-breakers.
A bipartisan group of House members has been working behind
the scenes on a comprehensive immigration reform package. They
hope to unveil their work before the State of the Union address,
but it was unclear whether they would meet that goal.
At the White House on Tuesday, Obama will try to rally
business and labor leaders with a sales pitch that immigration
reform will be good for the fragile U.S. economy and help boost
job creation, administration officials said.
Napolitano was headed to San Diego on Monday and El Paso,
Texas, on Tuesday to inspect security on the border with Mexico
and meet state and local officials, her office said.
Border security is expected to be a tough area for
compromise on the type of sweeping overhaul that Washington has
talked about for years but been unable to execute.
Obama and his aides have argued that his administration has
made strides in tightening controls at the border, resulting in
fewer people trying to cross over from Mexico. But some
Republicans say more must be done to prevent an increased flow
of illegal immigrants once the U.S. economy improves.