By Thomas Ferraro
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Washington may again be the site of massive civil-rights rallies, this time pressuring the Republican-led U.S. House of Representatives to approve a pathway to U.S. citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants, a key Democrat said on Sunday.
With the Senate set to approve its White House-backed bill this week, Senator Charles Schumer, an author of a bipartisan bill that would allow about 11 million immigrants to eventually become U.S. citizens, said he expects House Speaker John Boehner will soon have "no choice," but to let pass a Democratic-backed immigration bill.
However, if Boehner tries to bottle up a bill that includes eventual citizenship, Schumer said, "I could envision in the late summer or early fall ... a million people on the mall in Washington," demanding action.
"This has the potential of becoming the next major civil rights movement," Schumer told CNN's "State of the Union," conjuring up memories of rallies in the 1960s that resulted in landmark anti-discrimination and voting rights legislation for African Americans. Schumer is the third ranking Democrat in the Senate.
Boehner's Republican Party has said it needs to support comprehensive immigration reform to make the party more attractive to Hispanics, the fastest growing U.S. voting bloc.
Yet Boehner, facing pressure from many of the House's most conservative members, said last week that he would not bring any immigration bill up for a vote unless most Republicans back it.
A Senate test vote is set for Monday, with passage of the bill expected on Thursday.
Strong bipartisan Senate support was assured last week when a $40 billion deal was reached to double to about 40,000 the number of federal agents on the U.S.-Mexican border, and obtain a crush of additional high-tech surveillance equipment, including planes, drones and radar.
Up to 70 or more of the 100 senators are expected to vote for the bill, including all 52 Democrats, both independents and perhaps 16 or so of the 46 Republicans, according to aides for both parties.
With passage virtually assured, the Senate immigration battle is now essentially over with the focus shifting to the House where it remains unclear what will happen.
Many Republicans oppose the proposed pathway to citizenship, denouncing it as "amnesty" for law breakers that will attract even more illegal immigrants.
Backers reject such talk, noting that the 13-year pathway would require undocumented immigrants to pay back taxes, learn English, hold a job and pass criminal background checks.
They also argue that the pathway would draw undocumented immigrants from the shadows, where many are now abused, and help make them a productive part of the American way of life.
Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, one of the most conservative members of Congress and a potential 2016 White House contender, said, "It will pass the Senate. ... But it's dead on arrival in the House."
Speaking on CNN, Paul said many agree with him that there should be evidence that bolstered border security has reduced illegal crossings before anyone can begin a pathway to citizenship.
Under the Senate bill, there is no such requirement.
Republican Senator Mike Lee, like Paul, a favorite of the conservative Tea Party movement, said his chief problem with the Senate bill is the sequencing of events.
"The pathway to citizenship begins basically on day one. But it will take many, many years, if not decades to fully implement all these border security measures," Lee told Fox News Sunday.
The deal to implement additional border security was reached after the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the initial bill would reduce illegal immigration by just 25 percent.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, a member of the "Gang of Eight" that wrote the bipartisan bill, hailed the added security.
"We practically militarized the border," Graham told Fox TV.
(Reporting by Thomas Ferraro; editing by Jackie Frank)