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Tech legislation put on hold

With Congress sidetracked by the White House sex scandal, legislation regarding visas for highly skilled foreign workers will have to wait.

With Congress busy debating spending bills and sidetracked by the White House sex scandal, several Silicon Valley-backed bills will have to wait for their turn on Capitol Hill.

Legislation to increase the number of highly skilled foreign workers allowed into the country each year was scheduled for a vote on the House floor today, but has been pulled from the agenda while Congress scrambles to pass federal appropriations legislation for the new fiscal year.

If passed by both arms of Congress, Rep.Lamar Smith's (R-Texas) legislation would increase the annual number of H-1B visas handed out to foreign workers from 65,000 to 115,000 over a three-year period. But before being awarded visas, companies would have to prove that they first looked long and hard for American workers and hadn't laid off domestic employees to replace them H-1B visa holders.

Companies also would have to report their efforts to the Labor Department--a step some lawmakers and companies say is too bureaucratic.

But the anticipated vote may not happen until next week, according to Smith's spokesman, Allen Kay. Even if it passes the House, the Senate still has to approve the bill.

The high-tech sector is lobbying heavily for the legislation, arguing that there is a shortage of domestic talent. President Clinton has warned for months, however, that he would not sign the bill without certain protections for U.S. workers.

Some critics say Clinton, embroiled in the scandal over his sexual relationship with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky, is aligning himself more closely with the most liberal members of Congress, who are unlikely to support an increase in the number of skilled foreign workers allowed into the country for fear of irritating organized labor unions.

But the vote apparently was postponed so that Rep. Spencer Abraham, who introduced a similar bill, can finish negotiations with the White House, according to Michele Davis, a spokeswoman for House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas).

Congress must pass several federal spending bills before members can recess. Congress is slated to adjourn October 9, Davis said.

"Appropriations bills are obviously the top priority," she said. "Then we'll bring the [immigration] bill up as soon as we have the Democrat votes we need."

Abraham's bill also included penalties for companies that purposely lay off U.S. workers to replace them with H-1B visa holders, though an amendment offered by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Massachusetts) to fine companies up to $25,000 for failing to search for an American worker before filling a slot with a foreign employee was rejected.