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H1-B bill could get reprieve

Legislation to almost double the number of highly skilled tech workers allowed into the country may escape sudden death.

Legislation to almost double the number of highly skilled technology workers allowed into the country each year may escape sudden death before Congress adjourns tomorrow.

Rep. Lamar Smith's (R-Texas) Workforce Improvement and Protection Act has been hanging in the balance since a vote on the legislation was blocked Friday. But as previously reported, the bill now will be tacked on to an omnibus appropriations package that Congress must pass by midnight tomorrow.

The move marks the second eleventh-hour victory for high-tech lobbying groups, as a bill to curb shareholder lawsuits against companies with volatile stock prices also cleared a major hurdle today by passing the Senate.

The Smith bill could finally pass Congress this week, after a compromise was struck with the White House and it was passed in the House by a 288-133 vote.

The Clinton administration signed off on the bill to boost the number of H1-B visas for technical and well-educated workers from 65,000 to 115,000 for 1999 and 2000, and to return to the current level by 2002. However, a select number of high-tech companies that hire many H1-B employees will be subject to increased Labor Department monitoring.

The bills impose stiffer penalties for firing an American worker in favor of an H1-B visa holder, and for paying foreign workers lower wages than their American counterparts.

But when the Senate attempted to vote on the bill Friday, the action was blocked by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa).

Harkin rehashed an ongoing argument that the high-tech industry is not starving for workers and is in fact laying off tens of thousands of workers this year alone.

"Now, ostensibly, the reason for doing this, and why this came up in the last couple of years, is that there was projected to be a big shortage in computer programmers," Harkin said on the floor. "It turns out that has, indeed, not happened."

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Mississippi) expressed frustration Saturday with Harkin's opposition, which is allowed under Senate rules, but left no time for a challenge to his comments, as Congress is quickly running out of time to approve fiscal 1999 budget bills before the current session adjourns.

So proponents of the foreign worker visa legislation have shifted their strategy, tacking the bill onto the critical spending legislation.

"I commend the Republican leadership and the budget negotiators for including this important legislation in the omnibus bill," Sen. Spencer Abraham (R-Michigan), who introduced the original legislation, said today in a statement.

"The [bill] had strong support in both chambers, as well as the White House, and certainly would have passed in the Senate on a roll call vote," he added. "The legislation strikes the right balance in safeguarding America's competitive edge and protecting U.S. jobs."

The high-tech industry has lobbied aggressively for the bill since last September, when the H1-B visa cap was reached for the first time. In the current fiscal year, the cap kicked in with four-and-a-half months of the year still to go, prompting more calls for a higher limit.

H1-B employees typically work in the electronics or software industries, and many are recent college graduates hoping to prolong their stay in the United States. The jobs can be high-paying, heightening fears that foreigners will work for lower wages than Americans would accept.

But in a move to quell opposition to the bill, it now includes language that would substantially increase National Science Foundation scholarships for low-income students in math, engineering, and computer science to $75 million per year. The increase would be paid for by revenue gained from raising fees for visa applications to $500.