By Thomas Ferraro
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The head of the biggest U.S. business group, a traditional ally of Republicans, said on Thursday that he remains confident that the top Republican in Congress will push to enact comprehensive immigration reform.
U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Thomas Donohue said he is not worried about House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner's refusal to negotiate with the Senate on its sweeping bipartisan bill.
Donohue said he supports Boehner's decision to instead take a step-by-step approach with smaller measures to fix the nation's broken immigration system.
"I believe it will get done," Donohue said at a news conference attended by business, religious and law enforcement leaders, all of whom echoed his determination and optimism.
A landmark bill to bolster border security, help business get needed workers and provide an earned pathway to U.S. citizenship for up to 11 million undocumented immigrants won Senate approval in June.
But thus far, the House has passed only a handful of limited bills, most dealing with enforcement and none providing a pathway to U.S. citizenship.
Donohue promised to help Boehner get the votes to pass a series of bills to provide comprehensive reform, including a pathway to citizenship.
He said such legislation would be good for business, labor and the country, and that he expects final congressional approval in the first half of next year.
"We're not going away," said Donohue, whose business group, along with organized labor, helped craft the Senate bill. "We're just getting warmed up."
Boehner drew fire on Wednesday when he said that the House will not negotiate with the Senate to resolve differences between the Senate bill and what the House ends up passing.
"We have made it clear that we are going to move on a common sense, step-by-step approach," the speaker said in repeating his opposition to the Senate legislation.
"We have no intention of ever going to conference on the Senate bill," he said.
Some read Boehner's comments to mean that he was walking away from comprehensive reform.
Donohue, whose Chamber of Commerce represents more than 3 million businesses, said he didn't see it that way.
"I'm not upset with Boehner," Donohue said, adding that he believes Congress will end up doing what needs to be done to overhaul the U.S. immigration system.
"We will get there," he said. "It doesn't matter to me what music they play for the dance."
OBJECTION TO PATHWAY
The Chamber of Commerce, and much of the business community, has long been allies of Republicans, largely because of the party's anti-tax, anti-regulatory positions.
Yet many Republicans have balked at the Senate bill because of the pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
Critics say the pathway would provide "amnesty" to law breakers and encourage more illegal immigration.
Supporters disagree. They say it would bring millions of illegal immigrants out of the shadows and end exploitation of them.
Donohue said he remains confident Congress will enact a comprehensive immigration overhaul largely because polls show more than 70 percent of Americans back it.
Jay Timmons, head of the National Association of Manufacturers, joined Donohue at Thursday's news conference and said: "We're all optimistic up here."
The news conference was a follow-up to a "fly-in" last month that saw more than 600 conservative leaders from across the country come to Washington to urge lawmakers to move forward on immigration reform.
(Reporting by Thomas Ferraro; Editing by Eric Beech)