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House GOP 'Gang of Eight' members threaten to quit immigration talks (UPDATED)

UFW President Arturo Rodgriguez listens to Rep. Zoe Lofgren at House immigration hearing
UFW President Arturo Rodgriguez listens to Rep. Zoe Lofgren at House immigration hearing
Kitty Felde

The Senate Judiciary Committee gets back to work today on amendments to an 844-page immigration bill.The measure was crafted by a so-called “Gang of Eight” senators who pounded out a bi-partisan compromise. But over on the House side, a similar group appears to be falling apart.

Both House Democrats and Republicans say their working group is 95% of the way to an agreement on a comprehensive immigration bill.

But there’s deep disagreement over health care costs and a Senate compromise between unions and the Chamber of Commerce to include both high tech and low-skilled worker visas. GOP Congressman Raul Labrador of Idaho says he’s willing to walk away from the table: "You just need to ask the Democrats if they are willing to — actually for the first time — put Hispanic groups ahead of the unions and ahead of Obamacare."

Illinois Democrat Luis Gutierrez, a member of the House working group, says he’s not willing to give up. "You know, somebody’s gotta be optimistic in this process because there’s a lot at stake." He insists there is no split between Democrats on the group.

Republicans say if no agreement is reached at their next meeting next week, they will introduce their own more conservative version of immigration reform. 

Some Republicans aren't waiting. Today, the House Judiciary Committee considered a pair of smaller immigration bills. One dealt with the electronic worker verification system known as E-verify, which Democrats approve of - if included in a comprehensive immigration bill.

The main disagreement was over the second bill, a temporary visa proposal that labor leaders say resembles the Bracero program of the last century.

Democrats want the House to adopt the agreement between business and labor that includes a path to citizenship for current farm workers and temporary visas for future workers. Those are included in the Senate's immigration bill.

But the House Judiciary Committee Chairman, Republican Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, said the lesson of the 1986 immigration bill was that legalization creates a labor shortage in the fields. "Once they received permanent residence," he said, "many left the fields for jobs in the cities."

San Jose Democrat Zoe Lofgren - who is also a member of the House "Gang of Eight" - agreed some people did leave agriculture. But she said the exodus had more to do with an aging workforce and a physically "hard job." She did the math. "If you were 40 years old in 1986, you'd be 71 years old today." She said, "you're not going to be out in the fields."

Goodlatte's bill would cap the total number of temporary agricultural workers at half a million and require them to leave the country at the end of 18 months.