By Thomas Ferraro and Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A bipartisan group in the House of Representatives is close to completing work on a comprehensive immigration reform bill that would include a pathway to citizenship for 11 million illegal immigrants living in the United States, according to congressional aides.
Two of the aides confirmed on Friday that the negotiators were still trying to agree on the issue of how to handle temporary laborers coming into the United States.
House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican, was briefed on Friday on the legislation, which congressional aides described as being nearly complete. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi received a briefing on Thursday, said one senior Democratic aide.
Michael Steel, a spokesman for Boehner, said: "The speaker had a good talk with the Republicans in the bipartisan immigration reform group. They've made real progress on a tough issue." He said the group would continue to work on the measure.
Boehner's office would not comment on details of the bipartisan group's work.
The back-to-back briefings for Pelosi and Boehner were "to let them know they were close to a finished product," said one House aide with knowledge of the issue.
In the Senate, a bipartisan group also neared completion of its own broad immigration bill, said senators and Senate aides.
Andrea Zuniga DiBitetto, a lobbyist for the AFL-CIO labor federation, said, "We're confident that a deal is going to be reached."
Leading senators have said the goal is to introduce a bill by early April. If things go as planned, the legislation could be ready for Senate floor debate by June or July.
Proponents in the House hope to pass their version of a bill this year.
A comprehensive reform bill, if it comes together, would aim to further toughen border security, deal with the millions living illegally in the United States and develop a way to streamline the future legal flow of immigrants, including temporary workers.
Prospects for legislation got a major boost last November, when Hispanic-Americans voted overwhelmingly to re-elect Democratic President Barack Obama.
The election results jolted Republicans, many of whom had taken a hard-line stance against any immigration reforms other than securing the southwestern border with Mexico and luring more skilled workers from abroad for U.S. high-tech firms facing labor shortages.
Although most Republicans say they now want to see some sort of immigration bill enacted this year, many are still hesitant about, or opposed, to giving 11 million illegal immigrants a special pathway to citizenship, arguing that would reward them for breaking the law and encourage a new wave of illegal border crossings.
Among the toughest issues the group of eight senators has wrestled with, more so even than a path toward citizenship, involves maids, waitresses and other low-paid foreign workers.
The group, which includes Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio, a potential 2016 presidential candidate, is trying to create a system allowing businesses to hire more low-skilled workers to fill shortages, but only after they show that they cannot find Americans to take the jobs.
In the past two weeks, the senators have submitted proposals to the AFL-CIO, the biggest labor group, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the largest business group. But those two groups remain deeply divided.
Talks "have been difficult," Randel Johnson, the chamber's senior vice president of labor and immigration, told reporters on Friday. "What is the overall cap of the (temporary visa) program is an issue," he said.
The chamber wants 400,000 visas a year. The AFL-CIO wants to cap visas in "very low five figures," said Johnson.
The chamber and the AFL-CIO had agreed that a new temporary worker program, which unions previously opposed on grounds it exploits workers, would eventually let some of the immigrants earn U.S. citizenship.
Johnson could not say how many of the temporary workers would be allowed to earn citizenship, except to say they would have to meet certain criteria such as having no criminal record.
That also is the case for the 11 million undocumented people in the United States, according to the Senate initiative outlined in late January.
Under the Senate measure, they would have to have clean criminal records, pay back taxes and a penalty and learn to speak English. In practice, it could take up to 15 years for someone to earn citizenship. But they would not live under the threat of deportation.
The group has discussed creation of a commission, perhaps within the Labor Department, to oversee the annual admission of low-skilled foreign workers. It would consider factors including the jobless rate in specific sectors, such as those that employ hotel and restaurant workers.
(Additional reporting by Rachelle Younglai; Editing by Fred Barbash and Peter Cooney)
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