Continued from page 1

Republicans who oppose legalization say they are worried that Mr. Boehner will try to slip a bill through the House, even if it’s during a lame-duck session after congressional elections. Immigration advocates say they are worried the speaker will bow to political pressure and shelve the issue without testing the level of support.

Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorks USA, said she takes Mr. Boehner at his word: He is hellbent on legislation but leads a caucus with wildly divergent views.

Still, she said, the Republican Party has undergone a major shift over the past decade that Mr. Boehner is trying to nurture.

“Leadership has to do a combination of gauging that appetite and also press that appetite, to move it,” Ms. Jacoby said. “That’s what he’s trying to do. He can’t be way out ahead of them, but he can be encouraging.”

She said signs of Mr. Boehner’s commitment are apparent. Late last year, he hired Becky Tallent, who was a top immigration adviser to Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and a longtime advocate of legalization. Then early this year, Mr. Boehner released a set of principles laying out a vision for immigration reform that included legalizing illegal immigrants, though it didn’t offer a special pathway to citizenship.

Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat who has been fighting for years for a legalization bill, said he trusts Mr. Boehner’s remarks to his home-state Rotary Club more than his rhetoric in Washington.

“I will always believe a man who’s home, in familiar, comfortable, safe surroundings,” said Mr. Gutierrez. “It demonstrates a priority that exists within the Republican leadership. They really want to get this done.”

Mr. Boehner has said he will move legislation only in pieces. He has rejected the Senate’s approach, which combined legalization, stiffer enforcement and a rewrite of the legal immigration system into one massive bill.

Mr. Boehner also has said he will not violate the “Hastert rule,” named for former House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, who refused to bring up bills that didn’t have at least a majority of Republican lawmakers on board. Mr. Boehner has broken that rule but said he will adhere to it on immigration.

If he holds firm to the Hastert rule, opponents say, no immigration bill will be passed.

Yet they fear Mr. Boehner will try to orchestrate some votes by attaching immigration provisions to other bills.

“At this point, I don’t think it actually happens but I am completely convinced they are looking for and creating vehicles,” said Mr. King. “I’m completely convinced of that.”

One option would be to add to the defense policy bill a legalization provision for young illegal immigrants who agree to join the military.

Democrats have personally challenged Mr. Boehner on the issue.

“It’s time for John — he’s a good man, John Boehner — to stand up and other Republicans to stand up,” Vice President Joseph R. Biden said at a Cinco de Mayo celebration Monday. “It’s time for him to stand up, stand up and not let the minority — I think it’s a minority — of the Republican Party in the House keep us from moving in a way that will change the circumstances for millions and millions of lives.”

Story Continues →