WASHINGTON (AP) -- A dispute between business and labor groups over wages for low-skilled workers flared up Friday as senators grasped for a deal on a sweeping immigration bill.
Officials from outside groups said the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and AFL-CIO, negotiating through a bipartisan group of 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 AFL-CIO argued that the chamber was trying to pay below median wage for any given profession, but the chamber said it would pay about the same as American workers get.
In the case of housekeepers, for example, the chamber wanted $8.44 per hour, which falls below the federal poverty level for a family of four, while the AFL-CIO position was $11.39 per hour, according to one official. The officials described the status of the discussions on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose details of the private talks.
The disagreement came as the so-called Gang of Eight faced pressure to reach a deal Friday in order to meet a self-imposed deadline of releasing its legislation in April. Friday was the last day Congress was in session before a two-week recess.
The bill would secure the border, improve legal immigration and workplace enforcement, and put the nation's approximately 11 million illegal immigrants on a path to citizenship.
As the day wore on, senators met hour after hour in a private chamber just off the Senate floor, and the chamber and AFL-CIO traded jabs, each accusing the other side of imperiling negotiations.
"We think Republicans are going to have a hard time to go home during recess and explain to their constituents, especially in Florida and Arizona, why they are holding up one of the most important pieces of legislation to this community based on their greed of not paying poor people even median wages," said Ana Avendano, assistant to the AFL-CIO president for immigration and community action.
Randy Johnson, the chamber's senior vice president for labor, immigration and employee benefits, said the chamber simply wanted to stick with current law requiring that temporary workers be paid whichever is greater: what comparable American workers make or the prevailing wage as determined by the Labor Department.
"We're puzzled as to why the unions would risk jeopardizing the negotiations by pushing for a provision that would drive up wages for immigrant workers above American workers," Johnson said in a statement.
Despite the last-minute jockeying senators reported they were moving forward.
"People have a lot at stake here, this is a huge deal. We're talking about the lives of 11 million people just to start with, so I understand why passions are high and sentiments are high," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a leader of the group, told reporters Friday.
"We just make steady progress. We take two steps forward, and then we take a step back," McCain said.