WASHINGTON – A last-minute dispute over wages for lower-skilled workers flared Friday as senators scrambled to sketch out a deal on a sweeping immigration bill before Congress takes a two-week recess.
The public clash between the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO underscored the high stakes involved in legislation that would dramatically reshape the U.S. immigration and employment landscape, putting 11 million illegal immigrants on a path to citizenship while allowing tens of thousands of new high- and low-skilled workers into the country.
The chamber and AFL-CIO, negotiating through the so-called Gang of Eight senators, had reached significant agreement on a new visa program to bring up to 200,000 lower-skilled workers a year to the country. The number of visas would fluctuate according to demand, and the workers would be able to change jobs and could seek permanent residency.
But the AFL-CIO was pushing for higher wages for the workers than the chamber had agreed to so far.
The dispute remained unsettled into the night, with chamber officials finally saying talks seemed to have stalled. Senators hoped to keep the disagreement from derailing negotiations on the overall bill.
The eight senators in the negotiating group, including Sens. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and John McCain, R-Ariz., were aiming to finalize as many details as possible before leaving town so that the recess could be devoted to drafting the legislation, which would then be made public when the lawmakers return in April.
“We’re close,” Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., another member of the group, said after one round of meetings Friday. “The biggest issue has always been the future flow” of workers. Flake said there were only “a few minor items” left to deal with apart from the Chamber of Commerce-AFL-CIO matter.
If that can’t be resolved, the expectation is that the senators would come to their own agreement on the issue and include it in the bill, and hope the chamber and AFL can live with it or modify it as the bill moves through committee and Senate floor action.