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Obama to tread carefully in immigration debate

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama will wade cautiously into the debate over U.S. immigration reform on Tuesday, seeking to build momentum for a new bipartisan plan to offer a pathway to citizenship for the country's 11 million illegal immigrants.

Reflecting the growing clout of Hispanic voters, Obama will travel to Nevada little more than a week after his second inauguration and make the case for swift action by Congress to overhaul immigration laws.

Immigration reform could give Obama a landmark second-term legislative achievement, but he is expected to tread carefully in a speech in Las Vegas, just a day after a group of influential Senate Democrats and Republicans laid out a broad plan of their own.

Obama's challenge is to help build public support for the senators' framework, which is in line with many of his main ideas for a sweeping immigration overhaul, while not alienating his fiercest Republican foes who might resist anything with the Democratic president's name on it.

While Obama is likely to use the bully pulpit of the presidency, backed up by a White House-organized grass-roots campaign, he will likely be more circumspect for now about how personally involved he becomes in congressional negotiations.

"The minute it becomes Obama's plan, the Republicans kick automatically into opposition," said Bill Schneider, a political scientist at George Mason University in Virginia. "The White House knows to back off for now."

Scheduled to speak at a Las Vegas high school at 11:15 a.m. PST, Obama does not intend to unveil legislation of his own. He will instead urge lawmakers to press ahead with their efforts even as he restates the "blueprint" for reform he rolled out in 2011, which called for an "earned" path to citizenship, administration officials said.

The flurry of activity marks the first substantive drive in years to forge an agreement on fixing America's flawed immigration system. Though the debate is likely to be contentious there is a growing consensus in Washington that the conditions are finally ripe for tackling the problem.

Obama and his fellow Democrats see their commitment to immigration reform as a way to solidify their hold on the growing Latino vote, which they won handily in the 2012 election. Nevada, for example, has a fast-growing Hispanic population that helped Obama carry the state in the November election.

Many Republicans, worried that their party has alienated Hispanics with anti-immigrant rhetoric, are suddenly open to cooperation on the issue as they seek to set a new tone.

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President Barack Obama meets with representatives from Major Cities Chiefs Association and Major County Sheriffs Association in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Monday, Jan. 28, 2013.(AFP)

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