WASHINGTON -- A bipartisan band of House members working on a comprehensive immigration bill has reached an agreement in principle, lawmakers said Thursday, after talks dragged on for months and appeared stalled earlier in the day.
The lawmakers did not provide details as they left a two-hour meeting Thursday evening, but said they would be working to write the measure.
"We have an agreement in principle. We're now going to work on finishing up the drafting of the bill," Rep. John Carter, R.-Texas, a member of the group, said Thursday.
Group members had been saying for months that they're close to a deal, but they'd yet to deliver. Other lawmakers and outside advocates fear they would lose their window to have a voice in the debate if they didn't soon produce something. Attention in the immigration debate has focused on legislation released last month by leading senators, which is currently before the Judiciary Committee for amendments and votes.
The House group met Thursday to decide whether to split up or salvage a deal.
Carter said earlier in the day the group couldn't reach agreement on the question of health care coverage for immigrants living in the country illegally who would gain legal status under the bill. He said one possibility was the issue would be left out of the bipartisan bill entirely, allowing Republicans and Democrats in the group to offer their own plans on that aspect of the legislation.
A similar approach could be taken on a new lower-skilled worker program that's also caused a problem for the eight lawmakers in the group, aides said.
The members of the group have struggled to come up with a plan that could have a possibility of passing the Republican-controlled House while also satisfying Democrats in the group. They had discussed a path to citizenship that would take 15 years for the estimated 11 million people living here illegally, two years longer than contemplated by the Senate bill, which is backed by President Barack Obama.
But a few final details, including health coverage and temporary workers, have eluded resolution in recent weeks and threatened to block any final deal.
"I am concerned that the bipartisan group has been unable to wrap up their work," House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, told reporters Thursday. "And I know that there are some very difficult issues that have come up. But I continue to believe that the House needs to deal with this and the House needs to work its will. How we get there, we're still dealing with it."
Overall, the legislation would share the same goals as the Senate plan: boosting border security, an increased focus on workplace enforcement, new means to allow workers to enter this country legally and the eventual prospect of citizenship for millions.
As the House group has bogged down, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., separately has moved forward with individual, narrowly focused bills on immigration, including one on workplace enforcement that was discussed at a hearing Thursday.
Meanwhile, the Senate Judiciary Committee held its third work session Thursday to plow through some 300 amendments to the Senate immigration legislation. The committee voted down an amendment by Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, that would have required the implementation of an electronic employer ID verification system in 18 months, instead of the four years contemplated by the bill.
Republican Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina -- two of the bill's Republican authors -- voted with Democrats against the amendment, which was defeated 13 to 5. So did Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, a potential swing vote on the bill.
Thursday's committee action was low-key, but behind the scenes efforts were underway to reach a deal on a series of amendments by Hatch that would benefit the high-tech community by making it easier for companies to access and use H-1B visas, which go to highly skilled workers. The bill increases the supply of these visas but also adds in protections aimed at ensuring U.S. workers get the first shot at jobs, and tech companies have objected to some of those provisions, which have been championed by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., a principle author of the bill, was working with Hatch to try to find a compromise but the issue was unlikely to be resolved before next week.
Republicans in the House group are Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida, John Carter and Sam Johnson of Texas and Raul Labrador of Idaho. On the Democratic side are Reps. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois, Zoe Lofgren and Xavier Becerra of California and John Yarmuth of Kentucky.