Hill leaders agree about progress on immigration reform but say final deal still in the making

FILE: Jan. 28, 2013:  Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., center, on Capitol Hill with a bipartisan group of  senators to announce their agreement on the principles of  immigration laws, Washington, D.C.

FILE: Jan. 28, 2013: Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., center, on Capitol Hill with a bipartisan group of senators to announce their agreement on the principles of immigration laws, Washington, D.C.  (AP)

Capitol Hill lawmakers acknowledged Sunday the Senate has cleared a major hurdle toward crafting a final immigration-reform proposal but said chamber leaders have yet to reach a final deal and still must negotiate with the Republican-led House.

Senators from the so-called Gang of Eight leading the chamber’s bipartisan effort spoke in an apparent attempt to make clear that a deal reached Friday between organized labor and big business on a visa program for low-skilled workers was not a final solution.

“We've still got a ways to go in terms of looking at the language and making sure that it's everything we thought it would be,” Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, one of the eight senators in the group, told NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “But we're closer, certainly.”

Flake also said the next step will be an agreement  on securing the U.S. border, followed by one regarding a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. However, the group has had problems getting consistent information from the Department of Homeland Security.

“We're going to have to have that before we move further,” Flake told NBC.

His remarks followed those of fellow group member and Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who earlier in the day also cautioned about reading too much into the agreement between AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and U.S. Chamber of Commerce leader Tom Donohue.

"Reports that the bipartisan group of eight senators has agreed on a legislative proposal are premature," Rubio said in a statement.

He also said the proposal still needs public input and enough votes to pass from the other 92 senators.

Rubio, a Cuban-American who is weighing a presidential bid in 2016, is a leading figure inside his party. Lawmakers will be closely watching any deal for his approval, and his skepticism about the process did little to encourage optimism.

Though he has appeared frustrated at times since being elected to the Senate in 2010 over reform efforts, New York Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer seemed optimistic Rubio will remain in the negotiations.

“I don't think he'll walk away,” Schumer, another group member, told NBC. “He's been an active and strong participant. … I'm not even going to speculate about that. … He is protecting some of the things that he thinks are very important in the bill. But I don't think that'll stand in the way in any way of any final agreement.”

Schumer also acknowledged the group has yet to finish writing a bill to address the 11 million illegal immigrants already in the United States.

Still, even if the Senate approves an immigration reform measure, it faces a tough road in the House.

New York Republican Rep. Peter King , the former chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, was skeptical Sunday about any prospects for a deal.

"Eight guys in a room saying the border is going to be secure is not enough," King said on ABC’s “This Week.”

On Saturday, White House spokesman Clark Stevens said President Obama continues to be encouraged by the progress being made by the bipartisan group of senators.

“We look forward to seeing language once it is introduced and expect legislation to move forward as soon as possible,” Stevens said.

The deal reached Friday will allow tens of thousands of low-skilled workers into the country to fill jobs in construction, restaurants and hotels.

Under the compromise, the government would create a new "W" visa for low-skilled workers who would earn wages paid to Americans or the prevailing wages for the industry they're working in, whichever is higher.

In a deeply divided Congress, immigration reform has emerged as the issue mostly likely to result in bipartisan, compromise legislation that can be passed by the Democratic-controlled Senate and Republican-led House.

In last year's Republican presidential primary, candidates took a tough stance on illegal immigration. In the November election, President Obama ended up receiving about 70 percent of the Hispanic vote, pushing him to victory in several swing states. With Latinos making up a rapidly growing segment of the electorate, many Republicans have become more receptive to immigration reform fearing that their party might become uncompetitive in national elections.

The immigration measure under serious discussion also would secure the border, crack down on employers, improve legal immigration and create a 13-year pathway to citizenship for the millions of illegal immigrants already here.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.