By Kevin Bogardus - 05/19/13 09:00 AM EDT
Business lobbyists are cheering on immigration negotiators in the House and expect they will make changes to the low-skilled worker visa program designed by the Senate’s “Gang of Eight.”
The new temporary worker visa program, which was worked out between the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO, has come under criticism from some quarters for not providing enough visas and for giving special treatment to the construction industry.
Business groups looking to expand the number of visas have focused their lobbying efforts on the House, and were heartened by Thursday’s announcement that negotiators had an agreement in principle that includes consideration of dueling Democratic and Republican proposals on temporary workers.
“We are excited about the prospects for this deal. It is going to resolve some of the issues in the Senate bill for our industry,” said Geoff Burr, vice president of federal affairs for the Associated Builders & Contractors.
While the details of the House deal remain unclear — and Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) still had yet to sign onto the agreement by Friday — the lower chamber’s progress could help slow the Senate bill.
“For them to say that they have a deal, that shows progress in the House and that taps the brakes on the Senate bill. That is the best thing to come out of their statements [Thursday] night,” said one business group lobbyist.
Several business groups have backed the push for immigration reform, but some have wanted to change the Senate's proposed low-skilled worker visa program by boosting its number of visas.
Under the House deal, lobbyists expect lawmakers to offer two competing plans on the new temporary worker program — one by Democrats, the other by Republicans.
“It seems they have a decided to do a choose-your-own adventure when it comes to the guest worker program. It looks like there will be two plans when it comes to guest workers,” Burr said. “We are excited about the House Republican guest worker plan because it seems it like it will address the deficiencies of the Senate bill in a positive way.”
That could postpone the looming battle over how to treat temporary workers until later this year.
“We’re pleased by the bipartisan efforts in the House of Representatives to develop an immigration reform bill, and appreciative that neither side is in a rush to judgment on how to resolve some outstanding issues related to the guest worker program,” said Shawn McBurney, senior vice president of governmental affairs for the American Hotel & Lodging Association, in a statement.
Construction industry representatives have been lobbying the House to change the new visa program proposed by the Senate, which caps visas for workers in the industry at 15,000 per year. Some anticipate that cap won’t make it into the House Republicans' temporary worker plan.
“We are encouraged that the four Republicans in the House gang have expressed their intention is not to single out the construction industry. We think that will lead to an improved final product coming out of the immigration reform debate,” Burr said.
The Chamber has told lawmakers to stick to the deal it crafted with the AFL-CIO to create the new “W” visas for temporary workers.
“As the Committee considers S. 744, the Chamber urges that the sound structure in the bill for W-1 visas be retained, allowing employers to participate in a program run by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for lesser-skilled occupations,” wrote Bruce Josten, the Chamber’s executive vice president for government affairs, in a letter on Monday to Senate Judiciary Committee members.
The AFL-CIO would like to see the final immigration reform bill signed into law stick to the Senate bill's framework as well.
“The fact that House Republicans are unwilling to accept the bipartisan compromise crafted by the AFL-CIO and the Chamber shows they are still more wedded to extreme ideology than constructive legislating,” said Jeff Hauser, an AFL-CIO spokesman.
The House lawmakers who announced the immigration reform deal have yet to release details to the press.
“We've just got to finalize drafting and then we'll have to sit down and reread it and make sure that we're not screwing things up,” said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.). “Since we're done, it's just an issue of getting the bill back and rereading it."
Diaz-Balart predicted that staff would be working on the House bill’s language next week while Congress is in town, and then members can take the following recess week to review it and work out any kinks over the phone.
“The good news is it looks like it's done, it's done. And again, even the vast majority of the drafting is done. So that's good news,” Diaz-Balart said.
Some in the business world had hoped the House bill would offer one option on the temporary worker issue. But the GOP proposal could still be an opportunity for lobbyists to win changes.
“I would have preferred that they come up with a solution that improved on the temporary worker program in the Senate bill,” said Tamar Jacoby, president and CEO of ImmigrationWorks USA. “But I'm convinced in a Republican House, that Republican members will realize that the only way we can stop illegal immigration going forward is an improved temporary worker program and they will go with the House Republicans' version of that program.”
Russell Berman and Mike Lillis contributed to this report.