Bipartisan Group Of Senators Could Have Immigration Bill Drafted By Next Week

Senators negotiating an overhaul of immigration laws turned to labor and business leaders to devise a new plan for guest workers, but not all of them are ready to commit to the plan those leaders have worked out.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

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And I'm Audie Cornish. Immigration reform is moving forward. Just a week ago, a push to overhaul the nation's immigration laws appeared in danger of derailing. But now, it's back on track. What happened? Labor unions and the business community came to terms this week on the future flow of unskilled workers. With that out of the way, NPR's Scott Horsley reports, a bipartisan group of senators hopes to have a bill drafted by next week.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: President Obama has said fixing the nation's immigration system is a top priority in his second term. At the White House today, spokesman Jay Carney sounded cautiously optimistic that a bipartisan Senate effort is close to being ready.

JAY CARNEY: We are encouraged by the progress. However, we're not there yet.

HORSLEY: Carney pointed to positive comments about the reform effort over the weekend by three senators, including two Republicans. One of those, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, sounded remarkably upbeat when he appeared on CNN.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: Well, I think we've got a deal. We've got to write the legislation. But 2013, I hope, will be the year that we pass bipartisan immigration reform.

HORSLEY: Behind that newfound confidence is a deal between the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO, two groups that don't always see eye to eye. Senators had asked those representatives of business and labor to fashion a compromise on the thorny issue of future work visas; specifically, how many unskilled workers would be allowed into the country each year.

Businesses want a reliable supply of workers to fill jobs they say Americans won't do, while labor wants to avoid putting downward pressure on wages. A week ago, the two sides were at loggerheads. But Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer, of New York, told NBC this weekend they found common ground.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER: Business and labor have an agreement and on the future flow, which has been the issue that has undone immigration reform in the past. So this is a major, major obstacle that's overcome.

HORSLEY: The deal would provide visas for up to 200,000 unskilled workers a year, with the exact number determined by conditions in the U.S. job market. Visa holders would not be tied to a particular employer, and they couldn't be paid less than American workers in similar jobs. While supporters cheered the tentative deal, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio warned any celebration is premature. Rubio, a key conservative in the push to overhaul immigration law, says there's still a lot of hearings and amendments to wade through. Rubio's fellow Republican senator, Jeff Flake of Arizona, echoed that point on NBC.

SEN. JEFF FLAKE: We want to see this bill move through regular order. It will be amended in the judiciary committee. It will be amended certainly on the floor. So there will be input. There should be input. It will make it a better product.

HORSLEY: The White House has drafted its own legislation as a backup if negotiations bog down. But for the moment, Carney says the president is content to let senators work at their own pace.

CARNEY: As a matter of strategy, the best course, and we've said this all along, was not for the president to drop his bill, proposed bill, at the outset, but to let and encourage the Senate to move forward in a bipartisan way to try to craft its own legislation.

HORSLEY: There are plenty of other contentious issues to work out, including how long immigrants who are here illegally must wait for a green card and whether their path to citizenship depends on new standards of border security. Those will be fights for the coming weeks. But for now, supporters say an overhaul bill is in sight.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.

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