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National Perspective

Democrats Now Will Back High-Tech Worker Visa Bill


WASHINGTON — Democratic congressional leaders announced a tactical shift Tuesday that opens the door to passage of popular legislation that would expand a program granting temporary visas to skilled foreign workers--a priority of the high-technology industry.

Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, the Democratic minority leaders, said that they would seek to attach other immigration reforms sought by Latino groups to a different bill. In essence, the two leaders conceded that efforts to attach the Latino-backed reforms to the legislation for skilled-worker visas, known as H-1B visas, would eventually fail.

The announcement followed a Senate vote of 94 to 3 to clear a procedural hurdle to passage of the H-1B visa bill, the second such overwhelming vote this month and another sign of unwavering bipartisan support for the legislation.

The Senate bill would raise to 195,000 a year the number of visas allowed annually, up from 115,000 this year. High-tech industries and other employers have exhausted the current supply of visas and they contend that they need the cap raised because of the tight labor market in this country.

Daschle told reporters that further votes on the H-1B visa bill--promised by the Senate Republican leadership in coming days--likely would clear by similar margins.

Facing that reality, Daschle and Gephardt said that Democrats would seek other vehicles for what they call the "Latino and Immigrant Fairness Act," a measure backed by President Clinton and some business and labor groups. The two leaders said that they had firm pledges from Clinton and most congressional Democrats to include that measure in legislation through end-of-session budget negotiations with Republicans.

One of its provisions would grant amnesty to at least 500,000 immigrants who entered the United States illegally but have lived in this country since before 1986. Another would help certain foreign nationals from Honduras, Haiti, Guatemala and El Salvador who fled those countries during periods of civil upheaval apply for permanent residency. A third would allow some immigrants in line for green cards to remain in the United States while they apply.

Senate Republicans have repeatedly blocked Democratic efforts to hitch the Latino-backed package to the H-1B bill.

Similar H-1B legislation has languished in the House for months amid partisan wrangling over procedure. But Gephardt said Republican leaders can now act on an H-1B bill knowing that it will get Democratic support. For his part, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said his chamber will move the legislation as soon as possible.

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