Updated at: 03/31/2013 11:09 AM
By PHILIP ELLIOTT
(AP) WASHINGTON - Even with one of the largest hurdles to an immigration overhaul overcome, lawmakers on Sunday cautioned much work remains and that no final deal has been reached.
The AFL-CIO and the pro-business U.S. Chamber of Commerce reached a deal late Friday that would allow tens of thousands of low-skill workers into the country to fill jobs in construction, restaurants and hotels. Yet despite the unusual agreement between the two powerful lobbying groups, lawmakers from both parties tried to curb expectations that the negotiations were finished and an immigration bill was heading for a vote.
"Reports that the bipartisan group of eight senators have agreed on a legislative proposal are premature," said Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican who is among the lawmakers working on legislation.
Rubio, a Cuban-American who is weighing a presidential bid in 2016, is a leading figure inside his party. Lawmakers will be closely watching any deal for his approval and his skepticism about the process did little to encourage optimism.
"Eight senators from seven states have worked on this bill to serve as a starting point for discussion about fixing our broken immigration system," Rubio said. "But arriving at a final product will require it to be properly submitted for the American people’s consideration, through the other 92 senators from 43 states that weren’t part of this initial drafting process."
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., helped negotiate the deal between AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka and Chamber of Commerce head Tom Donohue during a late-Friday phone call. Under the compromise, the government would create a new "W" visa for low-skill workers who would earn wages paid to Americans or the prevailing wages for the industry they’re working in, whichever is higher. The Labor Department would determine prevailing wage based on customary rates in specific localities, so that it would vary from city to city.
The detente between the nation’s leading labor federation and the powerful business lobbying group still needs senators’ approval, including a nod from Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican whose previous efforts came up short.
The measure also under serious discussion would secure the border, crack down on employers, improve legal immigration and create a 13-year pathway to citizenship for the millions of illegal immigrants already here.
Schumer acknowledged on Sunday that the lawmakers themselves had not settled on a final deal and said the senators have not yet finished writing a bill to address the 11 million illegal immigrants already in the United States.
"Business and labor have an agreement," Schumer said. "This is a major, major obstacle that is overcome."
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., also warned the negotiations were not complete despite the truce between labor and business.
"That doesn’t mean we’ve crossed every `i’ or dotted every `t,’ or vice versa," Flake said.
Big labor and big business were at a standoff over wages for low-skill workers and which industries would be included. Those disputes had led talks to break down a week ago, throwing into doubt whether Schumer and seven other senators crafting a comprehensive immigration bill would be able to complete their work as planned.
It’s a major second-term priority of President Barack Obama’s and would usher in the most dramatic changes to the faltering U.S. immigration system in more than two decades.
"This is a legacy item for him. There is no doubt in my mind that he wants to pass comprehensive immigration reform," said David Axelrod, a longtime political confidant of Obama.
During the last week, an immigration deal seemed doomed. But the breakthrough late Friday restarted the talks.
Ultimately the new "W Visa" program would be capped at 200,000 workers a year, but the number of visas would fluctuate, depending on unemployment rates, job openings, employer demand and data collected by a new federal bureau being pushed by the labor movement as an objective monitor of the market, according to an official involved with the talks who also spoke on condition of anonymity ahead of a formal announcement.
A "safety valve" would allow employers to exceed the cap, the official said, if they could show need and pay premium wages, but any additional workers brought in would be subtracted from the following year’s cap.
The workers could move from employer to employer and would be able to petition for permanent residency and ultimately seek U.S. citizenship. Neither is possible for temporary workers now.
The new program would fill needs employers say they have that are not currently met by U.S. immigration programs. Most industries don’t have a good way to hire a steady supply of foreign workers because there’s one temporary visa program for low-wage nonagricultural workers but it’s capped at 66,000 visas per year and is only supposed to be used for seasonal or temporary jobs.
Separately, the new immigration bill also is expected to offer many more visas for high-tech workers, new visas for agriculture workers, and provisions allowing some agriculture workers already in the U.S. a speedier path to citizenship than that provided to other illegal immigrants, in an effort to create a stable agricultural workforce.
Schumer, Flake and Axelrod appeared on NBC’s "Meet the Press."
Associated Press writer Erica Werner contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)