Under the still-evolving idea, one bill would resemble legislation strongly backed by conservatives that would curb legal immigration and open the door to building President Donald Trump's prized wall with Mexico. Conservatives have been demanding a vote on that measure, which GOP leaders say would be defeated.
The second bill would be more narrowly aimed at providing young "Dreamer" immigrants a chance to stay in the U.S. permanently, a goal of many moderate Republicans as well as Democrats. It would also contain provisions strengthening border security in an effort to win GOP votes, one of the lawmakers said.
The aim is to defuse a battle that has seen a group of GOP moderates try forcing House votes on four bills, over the objections of Republican leaders and conservative lawmakers. The moderates' plan would seem likeliest to produce legislation that would be backed by virtually all Democrats and a handful of Republicans but would have no chance of winning Trump's signature. GOP leaders and conservatives have denounced the moderates' effort and are trying to block it.
The lawmakers said details of the measures suggested by leadership remained in flux and a third, unspecified bill was possible. The Republicans, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe confidential conversations, said it could take a week or two to reach a final agreement.
Top Republicans have been trying for months to craft a bill that could clear a divided Congress, backed by most Republicans, and become law, an ambition that has so far eluded them. It was unclear what the leaders would do this time that would help achieve that aspiration.
Earlier Thursday, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said it would be "futile" for moderates to force immigration votes because Trump wouldn't sign the legislation it would produce. He conceded that so far, leaders have been unable to craft an immigration bill that could pass the House without Democratic support.
"The question is, could we have a bill that has a vast majority of Republicans that some Democrats would support? What's the combination?" he told reporters. Top Republicans have been meeting with moderates and conservatives in recent days in hopes of finding middle ground.
Asked about the plan, a GOP leadership aide said no deal had yet been reached among Republicans. The dispute has spilled over to a farm bill Republicans are trying to push through the House. Some conservatives have threatened to oppose it unless leaders allow a vote on the hard-line immigration legislation that conservatives favor.
The Senate rejected several bills earlier this year aimed at helping young immigrants protected from deportation by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA. Hundreds of thousands of Dreamers who arrived in the U.S. illegally as children have been temporarily shielded by that program. Trump has ended DACA, which President Barack Obama instituted, but federal courts have forced the administration to continue providing its protections as a legal battle over it continues.
Moderate Republicans from districts with many Hispanic, suburban or agriculture-industry voters have fought to protect the Dreamers, while conservatives consider DACA a program that has provided amnesty to people in the U.S. illegally.
The moderates have leverage because of a rarely utilized procedure that can force votes if 218 lawmakers — a House majority — sign a petition. Twenty Republicans have signed so far, just shy of the 25 who would be needed if all 193 Democrats add their names, as expected.