Gun control debate pushes back GOP talk on immigration

Immigration reform legislation initially set to be unveiled as early as Thursday could be delayed until next week as the Senate’s Gang of Eight scrambles to finish the bill. 

Negotiators say they’re working on last-minute tweaks before unveiling the legislation, which also slipped down the Senate agenda following Wednesday’s announcement of a deal on gun violence legislation. 

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“I don’t see, looking forward the next few days, any major barrier in the way,” said Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who has led the immigration talks. “Either the end of this week or next week. We’re still shooting for the end of this week. We have the total draft of the bill. There are still little pieces people have to go [through]. Depends how quickly we move through those.”

Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), one of the lead Republican negotiators, said: “We’re trying but it may spill over into next week.”

“We’re out of time,” McCain said.

Negotiators characterized the remaining issues as minor and predicted they would not hold up the legislation.

GOP aides said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) had been scheduled to brief a Wednesday meeting of Republican senators about the immigration reform bill. But that plan fell by the wayside after Sen. Pat Toomey (Pa.), a Republican with an A rating from the National Rifle Association, announced a bipartisan deal with Democrats to expand background checks for gun sales.

One Gang of Eight member said earlier this week the bipartisan group initially hoped to unveil the immigration bill on Thursday. 

But now it appears that schedule will slip.

The negotiators still have to finalize language on H-1B visas for high-skilled workers as well as provisions affecting agricultural workers, said a person familiar with the talks.

Construction companies could be the most disappointed with the legislation, which places a low cap on immigrant workers in the building industry and sets wage standards to address the concerns of unions, according to a person briefed on the discussions.

Interests advocating for an increase in STEM visas — for immigrants with advanced science, technology, engineering and math backgrounds — are likely to be pleased with the legislation. 

A person familiar with the talks said that while there are strict caps — lower than Republicans wanted — on many types of worker visas, STEM visas will not count against the quota.

Schumer and other members of the Gang of Eight have been lobbied in recent days to boost the number of STEM visas.

IBM, Microsoft and several interest groups sent a letter to members of the Senate group Tuesday urging them to make up for the shortage of U.S. workers with technical training.

“Unfortunately, our country is not producing enough workers to fulfill the ever-growing talent needs of our most innovative companies,” they wrote.

The companies cited a study predicting that between 2010 and 2020, the U.S. economy will produce more than 120,000 computing jobs requiring a bachelor’s degree, while the nation’s higher-education system will confer only 40,000 bachelor’s degrees in computer science.

When members of the Gang of Eight eyed Thursday as a possible date to roll out immigration reform legislation, the gun violence bill had appeared to be stalled. 

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) announced Monday he would filibuster the gun legislation.

The Senate’s focus shifted Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning as word spread that Toomey and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) had reached a deal to expand background checks, the centerpiece of President Obama’s gun control agenda.

Gun regulation dominated the discussion of the Senate Republican Conference during Wednesday’s meeting after Toomey briefed his colleagues on the background checks deal, said senators who attended. Immigration reform didn’t even come up.

At a lunch meeting of the Senate Republican Steering Committee, senators “vented” about the pressure they’ve felt on their right flank from groups such as the National Association for Gun Rights and Gun Owners of America, according to a lawmaker who attended.

The National Association for Gun Rights has aired television and radio ads in Maine accusing Sen. Susan Collins (R) of trying to strip gun rights from people who seek mental health treatment. The group has also targeted Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) in a grassroots lobbying campaign.

This story was updated at 8:17 p.m.