WASHINGTON — Two groups of bipartisan lawmakers in the House and the Senate are racing to put the finishing touches on massive and complex legislative proposals for immigration reform that could be introduced shortly after Easter.
A bipartisan group of eight senators has been meeting virtually daily to hammer out details of the bill, including how to structure new visa programs that would fundamentally alter legal immigration, as well as the politically treacherous issue of extending legalization and eventual citizenship to the nation’s estimated 11 million illegal immigrants.
“We’ve had good meetings,” said Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., a member of the group, on Thursday. “There are tough issues, but we’re moving.”
The secret bipartisan negotiations are delicate and fragile, a point put in stark relief Friday as a top official with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce warned that the organization’s efforts to come to terms with labor unions on the contentious issues of a new visa program for foreign workers has stalled.
Randel Johnson, the chamber’s vice president for labor, immigration and employee benefits, said the chamber has been pushing for 400,000 new visas for foreign workers, which has been met with fierce resistance by labor officials, who propose a far lower number.
The high-stakes negotiations are central to President Barack Obama’s pledge to push a comprehensive immigration bill through Congress this year. The White House has said it supports the Senate’s effort to craft a bill, and the administration has been trying to give the group time to work out a compromise proposal. But Obama has vowed to offer his own detailed legislation if the efforts in Congress get bogged down.
The Senate group has received most of the public attention on the issue because the group unveiled its effort with great fanfare. But there is also progress in the Republican-led House, long seen as the tougher political challenge for any immigration proposal.
The four Republicans involved in an eight-member bipartisan House group briefed House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, on Friday, informing him that the group is nearing a deal. That followed a meeting between the group’s four Democrats and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., on Thursday.
Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., said Friday that the group is now “weeks not months” from producing legislation. “This has a momentum of it’s own,” he said of talks in both chambers.
Boehner’s input will be key for determining how the House group proceeds. He has been supportive of the talks but has said action should begin in the Senate.
Advocates believe that a convincing vote for passage in the Senate could put pressure on a potentially more resistant House to act. Still, that would not preclude the House group from unveiling legislation while the Senate works.
A spokesman for Boehner said the group had a “good talk” with the House members, who must have more meetings with relevant committees before moving ahead.
“They’ve made real progress on a tough issue,” said spokesman Michael Steel.
The House group includes members who span the ideological spectrum. Republicans include Raul Labrador of Idaho, Sam Johnson of Texas, Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida, and John Carter of Texas. The group’s Democrats are Gutierrez, Xavier Becerra of California, Zoe Lofgren of California and John Yarmuth of Kentucky.
Despite the optimistic talk – driven in both chambers by a new urgency from Republicans to find new ways to appeal to Hispanic voters – deeply difficult issues remain to be resolved.
One major bargaining item is the new guest worker program. Though the Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO issued a common set of principles to guide legislative work two weeks ago, the chamber Friday issued a new caution.
“It’s been difficult. The next week and a half will tell the tale,” Johnson told reporters.
Under the terms of the Senate talks, the number of foreign worker visas would increase during periods of low unemployment, when some industries have trouble filling jobs with American workers. The number of visas would shrink when unemployment rises.
Concerns over a guest worker program provision helped sink a 2007 comprehensive immigration bill in the Senate, when lawmakers, including then-Sen. Barack Obama, approved by one vote an amendment to phase out such a program after five years, angering the business community.
This go-round, lawmakers are looking to set caps on the number of visas, and that is among the chief areas of disagreement. Johnson acknowledged that the business community won’t get as many visas as they’d like but indicated that the AFL-CIO’s bargaining position is far too low.
Unions are seeking a new federal bureau to help set the visa caps each year, depending on regional and industry needs.
Jeff Hauser, a spokesman for the AFL-CIO, suggested that the chamber is trying to strengthen its negotiating position by taking its concerns public in the final weeks before the Senate produces a bill.
“They’re trying to create drama around this thing,” Hauser said. “The main thing is that they only have leverage now” before a bill is written.
Hauser added that the chamber has less leverage than it did six years ago because Republicans learned last fall that they need to expand their base among Latinos and Asians, who overwhelmingly supported Obama over GOP nominee Mitt Romney. “The chamber is not needed to bring Republican votes to this,” Hauser said.
The guest worker program would focus on foreigners in blue-collar industries. Separately, the Senate group is considering ways to expand visas to high-tech workers from foreign countries.
Chamber officials said the senators are not considering increasing a cap of 140,000 visas in that category, but rather are likely to exempt some foreigners in certain fields, such as professors and researchers, to open up more slots for tech workers.