During a news conference on the annual House Republican retreat, Speaker of the House John Boehner said members would be hammering out principles going forward for immigration reform. (The Washington Post)

House Republican leaders said Thursday for the first time that they would be open to allowing the nation’s 11 million illegal immigrants to live and work legally in the United States, but they emphasized that most would not be offered a “special path” to achieve citizenship.

The announcement was made at a GOP retreat in Cambridge, Md., where Speaker John A. Boehner (Ohio) distributed a two-page list of broad immigration principles to his membership for private discussions. The document represented the leadership’s first attempt to outline a vision for how to address an overhaul of border control laws, seven months after the Senate approved a far-reaching bipartisan plan in June.

The House principles were being parsed by the White House, congressional Democrats and advocacy groups to determine whether there was a chance of achieving a major immigration deal that has eluded lawmakers for decades. The mood among most interest groups, and key Democratic leaders, was one of guarded optimism.

President Obama, in an interview with CNN hours before Boehner released the document, said, “I actually think that we have a good chance of getting immigration reform.”

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who co-wrote the Senate immigration plan, said: “While these standards are certainly not everything we would agree with, they leave a real possibility that Democrats and Republicans . . . can in some way come together and pass immigration reform. It is a long, hard road but the door is open.”

The debate is likely to last months and is fraught with peril for both sides as they fight over the specifics of how many illegal immigrants would be able to attain legal status and citizenship.

Conservative pundits denounced the House leadership for raising the polarizing issue during an election year, while some liberal groups feared that Democrats might give up a direct route to citizenship for most of the undocumented population to secure a deal.

In releasing the principles, Boehner, according to a source in the room, told his colleagues: “These standards are as far as we are willing to go. Nancy Pelosi said yesterday that for her caucus, it is a special path to citizenship or nothing. If Democrats insist on that, then we are not going to get anywhere this year.”

The Senate plan, backed by the White House and Pelosi (D-Calif.), the House minority leader, would guarantee that immigrants would be able to gain permanent legal status, known as a green card, in 10 years and citizenship three years later, provided they met certain requirements.

The House GOP document, like the Senate plan, included calls for increased border security, new workplace hiring verification rules, and changes to the current visa programs for foreign workers and families. On the key question of what to do with those who entered the country illegally or overstayed their visas, the leadership said young people who came as children, a group known as “Dreamers,” would be afforded legal status and, potentially, citizenship.

But for the rest of that population, estimated to number about 10 million, the document states : “There will be no special path to citizenship for individuals who broke our nation’s immigration laws — that would be unfair to those immigrants who have played by the rules and harmful to promoting the rule of law.”

Rather, the GOP leadership proposed that immigrants would be allowed to live and work in the country if they met a series of provisions, including paying taxes, admitting that they broke the law and learning English. The principles also emphasized thatimmigrants could not attain legal status until border security benchmarks were reached.

The release of the immigration principles was viewed on Capitol Hill as a test by Boehner to gauge the appetite of his caucus, and conservative pundits and donors to tackle a big, risky legislative initiative in an election year in which Republicans believe they have a chance to pick up seats in the House.

GOP leaders signaled that a vote — or even an extended debate about specific legislation — would not come until later this year, possibly in the summer. “It’s probably months out,” said Rep. Greg Walden (Ore.), chairman of the party’s campaign committee.

Robert Costa and Ed O’Keefe contributed to this report.