WASHINGTON A bipartisan group of lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives said on Thursday they had reached a tentative deal to revamp the immigration system, after disputes over a temporary worker program and healthcare benefits threatened to derail their efforts.
"We have essentially come to an agreement on all the major points," Democratic Representative John Yarmuth of Kentucky told reporters after a two-hour meeting with six other Democratic and Republican lawmakers.
The bipartisan group has been attempting to introduce an immigration bill for years. But disputes over border security, work visa numbers and healthcare provisions had grown to the point that there were fears some lawmakers might be on the verge of dropping out of the long negotiations.
Yarmuth said there were still some "loose ends," but said that they were not major disagreements.
None of the lawmakers would provide details of the deal to reporters.
The group had been arguing over the "triggers" that would define when additional border security steps under the legislation would be sufficient to start legalizing some of the 11 million unauthorized foreigners, sources said.
There was also disagreement over several other policy issues central to an immigration bill, including the number of foreign high-tech workers who would be allowed in, as well as low-skilled construction and service industry laborers.
A separate bipartisan bill is being debated in the Senate Judiciary Committee with the goal of bringing a bill before the full Senate next month.
That panel is struggling with the work visa program in the bill and is under intense pressure from technology companies to make it easier to hire foreign workers.
One of the members of the House group, Republican John Carter, repeatedly told reporters before the House meeting that there was no way the Senate bill would pass the Republican-controlled House.
Immediately following the November 6 elections, in which Hispanic voters roundly rejected Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, House Speaker John Boehner called on his party to pivot on immigration.
After years of blocking moves to put the 11 million on a pathway to citizenship that many conservatives call "amnesty," Boehner, the top elected U.S. Republican, urged his party to work for a major revamp of immigration laws.
While citing concerns on Thursday about the lack of progress in the House so far, Boehner said: "I continue to believe that the House ... needs to work its will. How we get there, we're still dealing with it."
The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, has expressed his preference for doing individual bills tackling parts of the immigration policy problems, instead of a comprehensive approach.
But Democrats in both chambers have rejected such a strategy, saying it would indefinitely delay the pathway to citizenship for undocumented residents, many of whom have been in the United States for decades and are raising families here.
Besides policy disagreements, individual members of the House group have differed over whether it would be productive to unveil a House measure while the Senate is in the midst of debating its bill.
Democrats, for example, have been hesitant to embrace a more conservative House immigration bill, which they fear would undercut their fellow Democrats in the Senate.
(Additional reporting by Caren Bohan; Editing by Fred Barbash, Cynthia Osterman and Eric Walsh)