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Democrats shoot down Andreessen proposals

Loudcloud chairman Marc Andreessen faces a skeptical reception and a troupe of singing protesters in his address to Democratic lawmakers in San Francisco.

SAN FRANCISCO--Marc Andreessen faced a skeptical reception and a troupe of singing protesters in his address to Democratic lawmakers here today.

Speaking to Democratic officeholders and candidates assembled by the New Democrat Network and TechNet at the groups' California Retreat, the 28-year-old entrepreneur and engineer outlined a three-part legislative tech prescription for the centrist Democrats, staking out controversial positions on immigration and education issues.

Andreessen, who co-founded Netscape Communications, briefly was chief technology officer of America Online and currently is chairman of Loudcloud, recommended that the United States lift all immigration restrictions for skilled workers.

"The debate on immigration has been mischaracterized," Andreessen told the assembled Democrats. "Immigration creates jobs."

About one-third of Silicon Valley start-ups were founded or are run by immigrants, Andreessen said, including Loudcloud. More established companies run or founded by immigrants include Intel, Cisco Systems, Computer Associates and Sun Microsystems, he noted.

Immigration is one of the hottest political topics for the technology industry, as human resources departments face chronic shortages of skilled workers and look to foreign countries, such as India, that have burgeoning pools of tech talent.

The issue is particularly sticky for the Democratic Party, which relies on the fund-raising and organizational support of labor unions that tend to see calls for more open immigration as potential threats to American workers.

Congress, however, has rallied behind several competing measures that would increase the number of so-called H-1B visas, which let foreigners with college degrees work in the United States for up to six years.

Democrats today took a dim view of Andreessen's more radical proposal, citing the need to protect current citizens' jobs.

"We have to find ways to grow our own work force," Jane Harman said in an interview following Andreessen's remarks. Harman, a current candidate for the House seat she vacated two years ago in her unsuccessful quest for the California governor's office, continued: "There has to be a way to balance helping Americans fill out the work force and helping find the best people."

Andreessen on school funding, vouchers
Andreessen's second and least controversial proposal was to dramatically boost research and development funding to universities. That kind of federal money, Andreessen argued, was responsible for the ideas behind companies including Netscape, Yahoo, Inktomi and Cisco.

"Most innovation in Silicon Valley exists thanks to federal funding," Andreessen said. "The payoff for more funding is so huge it's unmeasurable."

The proposal that earned Andreessen his most fervent protests was to embrace the use of vouchers for private school education. Perhaps the most controversial idea in mainstream educational reform, vouchers would credit parents who send their children to private schools the amount of money the government would have spent on that child's public-school education.

Along with charter schools, vouchers have been a rallying cry among some in the technology industry for the same reason immigration policies have attracted attention: High-tech companies can't find enough qualified workers.

"The public education system in this country is just not producing enough skilled people," Andreessen said, citing an especial dearth of technologically skilled women and racial and ethnic minorities. "The numbers are just too low."

Following Andreessen's remarks, several members of the House rose to attack vouchers.

"We must have a smart, well-trained work force across the board, not just in the upper tier," Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., told Andreessen in a question-and-answer session. "The genius of the American education system is that it works across the board. You're going to need to provide evidence that vouchers would do that."

Andreessen later defended his position, saying that whatever risks vouchers posed did not outweigh the harms of the current system.

"What I'm trying to get across is that the Democratic Party has to think about how to provide more choice," Andreessen said in an interview. "I don't think the situation is going to get any worse. There is a systemic lack of competition and market incentives, along with entrenched power interests and unions. It's a socialist approach, and it's going to get the lowest denominator."

In addition to the skeptical reaction from lawmakers, Andreessen endured a brief, peaceful protest by a handful of singing activists who disrupted his talk for about a minute waving placards and singing songs attacking the New Democrat Network; they also handed out literature protesting the World Trade Organization.

Launching his keynote address, Andreessen displayed his trademark wit, recommending that on leaving the Sony Metreon mall his listeners should stop at the Microsoft store and pick up a "Love Bug" mug, a reference to the recent computer viruses written to exploit Microsoft's Internet software.

Despite the plethora of legislative advice, Andreessen disavowed any interest in running for public office.

"Good god, no," Andreessen replied when asked if he would consider running. "I'm not temperamentally suited for it."