An agreement between union leaders and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce could set the stage for a bipartisan group of senators to introduce a comprehensive bill to revamp federal immigration policy within weeks. The group of eight senators is led by Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.).

AFL-CIO and Chamber officials said on March 29 that they had reached general agreement on two issues that had been sticking points in the talks. Both dealt with the guest-worker program. But some construction groups say the details of the agreement are unrealistic or problematic.

In a concession to labor, Chamber officials agreed some highly skilled construction workers, such as electricians or crane operators, would be excluded from the guest-worker program. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka pushed for the construction "carve out" to protect the jobs of current workers in the industry.

The deal also caps, at 15,000, the number of low-skilled construction workers who could enter the country under the H-2B guest-worker program.Overall, 200,000 workers would be permitted. Construction "is the only industry to receive its own cap," says Jeff Shoaf, Associated General Contractors of America senior executive director of government affairs. He says a 15,000-worker cap, about .27% of today's construction workforce, is far short of employers' needs.

The union-Chamber agreement also calls for a new Bureau of Immigration and Labor Market Research, which would publish data on worker shortages in various sectors and regions. Companies would be required to check with the bureau to see if shortages exist in their area before requesting temporary guest workers.

The AFL-CIO and the Chamber also agreed that workers would be paid prevailing rates as designated under the current guest-worker program. Randy Johnson, a Chamber senior vice president, said in an emailed statement, "This is a structure we can move forward with."