* Critics see attempts to derail legislation
* McCain says keep eye on final product
By Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON, May 8 (Reuters) - Nearly two months ago, U.S. Republican Party leaders urged their rank-and-file to embrace comprehensive immigration legislation as part of a broad effort to appeal to Hispanics and other minorities who rebuked Republican candidates in the 2012 elections.
Now, with the start of what is looking to be a historic debate in the U.S. Senate on revamping the country's immigration policy, some are saying that it appears as if not all Republicans got the message.
"The 11 most heartless Republican amendments to the immigration bill," blared a website headline posted by Think Progress, an arm of the liberal Center for American Progress.
One by one, these proposed changes could rein in the comprehensive nature of the immigration bill that Democratic and Republican backers say is essential to success.
"You have one part of the Republican Party that understands that it's possible to have a welcoming tone and a practical compassionate view" toward immigration reform, said Ali Noorani, executive director at the National Immigration Forum, which is pushing broad changes to U.S. immigration policy.
"On the other side," Noorani added, "there are Republicans who frankly don't care about the tone. The only change they want is to reduce immigration, period."
The Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday begins debating the nearly 900-page bill that aims to further increase U.S. border security, establish new visa systems for foreign workers and provide a "pathway to citizenship" for the 11 million people who are living in the United States illegally.
A long, tough fight in both the Democratic-controlled Senate and the Republican-controlled House of Representatives is expected over President Barack Obama's top legislative priority.
Republicans were not the only ones offering amendments that some considered potential "poison pills."
For example, Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Democrat, has offered an amendment that many say would kill the bill by including same-sex couples in the immigration reforms.
About 300 amendments to the bill have been submitted to the Judiciary panel, which will have to wade through them this month in "mark up" meetings, and most are from Republicans.
Senator Charles Grassley, the senior Republican on the committee, offered 77 of the amendments, many of which are unlikely to erase some minority voters' perception that the party is hostile toward immigrants.
As the bipartisan bill is currently written, illegal immigrants could quickly win temporary legal status if they clear certain hurdles. But one Grassley amendment would punish them if they were to travel home to visit a sick relative or for some other family emergency. His proposal would prohibit those immigrants from returning to the United States, according to the Center for American Progress.
Another Grassley amendment would hold up visas to South Koreans until Seoul has removed long-running Korean import restrictions on U.S. beef, which stem from the discovery several years ago of mad cow disease in some American cattle herds.
Republican Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, a leading critic of the Senate immigration bill, worries that legalizing the 11 million would end up swelling the rolls of government welfare programs.
So he has proposed that only those with incomes four times above the poverty line be allowed to apply for the temporary legal status. The legislation as now written sets the income requirement at either equal to the poverty line or proof of regular employment.
Sessions' approach could mean that a family of four applying for legal status would need an income of slightly more than $90,000 a year.
Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, a leading voice for comprehensive immigration reform and a co-author of the bill, said he never expected unanimous backing for the measure.
And he downplayed whether amendments like Grassley's and Sessions' could undercut the more inclusive message that Republican Party elders want to put on display.
"What people will care about is what the final result is. I don't think many people pay attention to the markups of a committee," McCain told Reuters in a brief interview.
Alexandra Franceschi, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee, was asked whether Republican Party officials were worried about the tone of some of the Republican amendments.
Franceschi did not discuss those amendments specifically, but said in an emailed statement: "Republicans in the House and Senate have been leading the efforts to reform our broken immigration system." She added that both Democrats and Republicans were submitting amendments "to improve the bill." (Editing by Sandra Maler)