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Worker visa issue takes break

The impasse over legislation to raise the annual cap on skilled foreign worker visas will continue to linger for the summer.

The impasse between Congress and the White House over legislation to raise the annual cap on skilled foreign workers allowed into the country will continue to linger now that the House has recessed for the summer.

The high-tech sector, which says it is desperate for skilled labor, lobbied heavily in favor of the legislation due to the purported lack of domestic talent. President Clinton has warned for months that he would not sign the bill without certain protections for U.S. workers.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Georgia) promised to pass legislation to increase the number of H-1B visas for foreign workers in occupations that require a bachelor's degree or higher, such as engineers, computer programmers, and college professors. The three-year visa can be extended for as many as six years.

But the president hasn't agreed to sign any of the legislative proposals on the table, so the House is holding off a vote until it returns to Washington in September.

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 in three years. Before getting approval for the visas, companies also would have to affirm that they first looked long and hard for American workers and also that they didn't lay off any U.S. workers for the positions.

Companies would have to report their efforts to the Labor Department, which some lawmakers and high-tech companies say is too bureaucratic.

Smith's bill was offered as a compromise to Clinton after he threatened to veto Sen. Spencer Abraham's (R-Michigan) American Competitiveness Act, which was passed by the Senate in May. The act would boost the number of H-1B visas to 90,000 this year and could grow to 105,000 annually by 2002.

Abraham's bill also included penalties for companies that purposely lay off U.S. workers to replace them with H-1B visa holders, but a rejected 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.

"The White House wants it both ways," said Joe McMonigle, a spokesman for Sen. Abraham. "They want to raise the number of visas, but they want to load it down with regulations so they can make the industry happy and they can make the labor unions happy. But you can't have both."

Two weeks ago, House and Senate leaders agreed to back Rep. Smith's bill as the main vehicle for an increase in H-1B visas. If the House passes Smith's bill, it also must clear the Senate.

However, the president apparently is not happy with this piece of legislation either.

High-tech industry representatives say the White House is afraid Republicans have watered down the U.S. worker training requirements in the bill, something that Clinton has made clear is high on his priority list.

"The administration was still holding the line and hardening its stance on the level of assurances that U.S. workers won't be overlooked in favor of foreign workers. The compromise legislation adequately and appropriately addresses those issues," said David Buyer, vice president for government affairs for the Software Publishers Association, which lobbied for both bills.

"The administration is really kowtowing to demands to organized labor," he added. "The arguments are not germane to the issue at hand. No matter how you cut it, there are hundreds of thousands of high-tech job openings."

The White House could not be immediately reached for comment regarding the impasse over the visa bills.

Clinton did reiterate his goal to invest in American workers today while signing the Work Force Investment Act, which would consolidate government-funded worker training programs.

"I'm telling you today, there are--even with the unemployment rate as low as it is--hundreds of thousands of high-wage, high-skill jobs that are going begging, undermining the ability of our free enterprise economy to maximize its benefits to all our people, to reach into all the urban neighborhoods, the rural communities, and the places that it has not yet reached," he said. "Therefore, giving all Americans the tools they need to learn for a lifetime is critical to our ability to continue to grow."